Japan’s biggest labor group picks 1st female head

Courtesy of Rengo / Jiji Press
New Rengo President Tomoko Yoshino delivers a speech at the trade union confederation’s regular convention in Chiyoda Ward, Tokyo, on Wednesday.

The Japanese Trade Union Confederation (Rengo) has selected Tomoko Yoshino as its president, the first woman to lead the nation’s largest labor organization.

Yoshino, 55, is expected to serve a two-year-term as president following her promotion from vice president. She is the first woman to hold the post since the organization was formed in 1989. Yoshino was appointed at Rengo’s 17th regular convention on Wednesday.

Rengo supports both the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan (CDPJ) and the Democratic Party for the People (DPFP) in the House of Representatives election to be held on Oct. 31. However, the labor unions under Rengo’s umbrella are opposed to the alliance between the CDPJ and the Japanese Communist Party (JCP), a situation that will put the new president’s skills to the test.

Yoshino comes from the Japanese Association of Metal, Machinery, and Manufacturing Workers (JAM), which is made up of labor unions of small and medium-sized firms mainly in the machinery and metal industries.

At the regular convention, Hideyuki Shimizu of the Japan Teachers’ Union was selected to succeed Yasunobu Aihara as general secretary, taking the No. 2 position in the labor organization.

Shimizu, 62, is Rengo’s first secretary general to hail from a public sector labor organization.

“There will be elections for the lower and upper house [during my term of office]. With the support of our constituent organizations and others, I will lead the Rengo movement,” Yoshino said in a speech after her election.

The selection of a new president to succeed Rikio Kozu, whose term was about to expire, was extremely difficult.

Rengo had hoped the former versions of the CDPJ and the DPFP — before both were revamped into the current parties — would team up to create a new party to create a major axis of the opposition bloc.

However, when the CDPJ attempted to include in its platform “reducing the nation’s nuclear power generation to zero,” private sector labor unions opposed the idea.

Yuichiro Tamaki, who headed the former version of the DPFP and who now leads its current version, was among the members who did not join forces in September last year.

As a result, Rengo’s member labor unions have remained divided over who to support, which led to growing dissatisfaction with the leadership structure of Kozu and Aihara.

Rengo customarily decides on candidates for the next president and general secretary by unanimous consent at its executive nominating committee, and elects them without a vote at its biennial convention held in October.

This time, the committee approached the heads of several private sector unions for the position of president, but they all refused, resulting in the unusual postponement of the Sept. 22 deadline for the submission of nominees. Ultimately Yoshino accepted the offer to become president, and the appointment was virtually finalized at the central executive committee meeting on Sept. 28.

There was some concern from private sector labor unions about the appointment of a former member of a public sector labor union as general secretary, but the unions agreed that it was important for Rengo to unite.

Backlash over alliance with JCP

Ahead of the inauguration of the new leadership on Wednesday, a new rift arose between Rengo and the CDPJ.

On Sept. 30, CDPJ leader Yukio Edano and JCP chair Kazuo Shii agreed that the JCP would provide “limited cooperation from outside the Cabinet” in the event of a change of government.

After learning of their agreement, a senior official of a labor union affiliated with a private sector company expressed dissatisfaction, saying, “It’s unacceptable for us to seek a change of government together with the JCP, whose policies are incompatible with ours.”

Some labor union members have said it would be better to support the candidates of the Liberal Democratic Party and Komeito in electoral districts where there are no DPFP candidates.

This friction between the CDPJ and Rengo is also casting a shadow over the support system for the lower house election.