Police and prosecutors continue repression of the Kansai District Ready-Mixed Concrete Industrial Union

2023.05.15 15:26 Nanami Nakagawa, Makoto Watanabe

Police and public prosecutors continue to coordinate their efforts to suppress the labor movement, with the Kansai District Ready-Mixed Concrete union made up of mixer truck drivers repeatedly targeted with arrests and other forms of harassment.

Since 2018, the Kansai District Ready-Mixed Concrete Branch (known as Kan-nama) of the All Japan Construction and Transport Workers Solidarity Union has suffered the arrest of 89 executive branch and regular members. Prosecutors threatened the members to “wear the union down” during investigations.

On March 2, 2023, at the Otsu District Court, top Kan-nama executive Yuji Yukawa was sentenced to four years in jail in the latest round of repressive actions meted out against the group. The series of arrests, including Yukawa’s, has caused a precipitous decline in the union’s membership, which has fallen from 1,300 to 600.

Simply acting to protect labor rights recognized in the Constitution, Kan-nama has played a pivotal role in increasing pay, securing additional holiday and generally improving the welfare of its members.

So why the determined efforts to suppress its activities by the authorities?

The Otsu District Court in Otsu, Shiga Prefecture, on March 2, 2023. | NANAMI NAKAGAWA

“You call yourself a judge?”

Kan-nama Chairman Yukawa and the other union members facing trial were brought to Otsu District Court in Shiga Prefecture at 1:15 p.m. on March 2 to hear their sentences passed down. The public gallery was filled with some 70 Kan-nama officials, ready-mixed concrete companies and reporters.

Presiding Judge Yasushi Hatakeyama, delaying the announcement of the verdict, began with the specifics of the case, as recognized by the court. It was two hours before he arrived at the decision.

“The accused, Yuji Yukawa, is sentenced to four years imprisonment.”

The verdict echoed throughout the stunned courtroom. Those sat in the gallery then watched on aghast as another five members of the union’s executive branch were each handed one- to three-year suspended prison sentences.

The court had found that the union’s repeated “attempts to draw attention to minor onsite flaws” at building projects involving local ready-mixed concrete companies and construction firms constituted threatening behavior and an obstruction of business activities, the judge said.

However, given that seemingly insignificant errors in the construction process can lead to serious accidents, the identification of onsite flaws is an issue of extreme importance to Kan-nama.

The so-called Heinrich Law, first advocated by American industrial safety pioneer Herbert William Heinrich, states that for every serious workplace accident, there are 29 minor incidents and a further 300 near misses. Therefore, as a labor union focused on ensuring worker safety, the identification of what the court may consider to be “minor flaws” in the workplace, are in fact an issue of great concern and should be addressed as such.

As the judge passed down the sentence, Yukawa sat impassively, staring directly ahead. Flanked by officials, he was then led out of the courtroom.

There was a volley of protests from the gallery at Judge Hatakeyama.

“You call yourself a judge?”

“Everything they did is protected under Article 28!”

“Resign from judge!”

But the judge responded with silence, leaving the courtroom without even having the hecklers removed.

Female union member’s underwear drawer searched by police

One Kan-nama member, Seiko Matsuo, couldn’t hold back the tears as she sat dejected in the courtroom following the verdict.

“Everything they did was standard union practice,” Matsuo said. “Are they guilty just because the police and the prosecutors say so?”

Matsuo started her career as a cement mixer driver 24 years ago in Feb. 1992. At the time, she was a 26-year-old single mother raising three young girls – an infant of 18 months, and twins aged 5.

“I was looking for work to feed my kids, but I had a difficult time getting hired because my kids were so young,” Matsuo explained. “Just the way my personality is, the whole nightlife entertainment business was never going to work for me. At that time, a friend introduced me to work as a mixer truck driver.”

It was only a short while later that Matsuo joined Kan-nama. She’d known nothing about the labor movement prior to that. But by studying up on law and the Constitution, she began to understand the importance of protecting workers’ rights, going on to become the general secretary of the group’s Keishin branch, which covers the regions of Kyoto and Shiga.

Through the efforts of the union, her pay went up, and in 2007 – having previously been employed as a day laborer – she became a full-time employee at her company.

But then, from 2018, the suppression of the union began. Union activities such as efforts to negotiate improved working conditions, leafleting, and strike action were labeled acts of attempted extortion or forcible obstruction of business, with members becoming subject to arrest. 

At 6 a.m. on 19 April 2019, Matsuo picked up the intercom at her home to learn that six police officers were waiting outside her door.

“My brother-in-law, who was also a Kan-nama member, had been arrested and they’d come to search the house,” she said. “They were all men, and they all just piled in.”

First, they opened up a garbage can that was standing in the hall and searched through its contents. They then went throughout the house, from the closets to the bathroom, searching everywhere they went.

When one of the officers suddenly went to open Matsuo’s underwear drawer, she protested, asking him what he could possibly think was in there. But he turned a deaf ear to her request for him to stop and simply carried on searching through the contents of the drawer.

Not just Matsuo, but many of the union’s other members suffered the same fate, 700 of them renouncing their membership for fear of the authorities’ repressive activities.

But Matsuo is determined not to give up on the union.

“Activities of labor unions are a means for the everyday worker to have a voice,” she said. “Whatever weird plans the police and the prosecutors might have, I’m not just going to roll over and take it.”

Seiko Matsuo on March 2, 2023. | NANAMI NAKAGAWA

Enterprise-based union vs industrial union

Why exactly has Kan-nama become a target for attack by the authorities? The answer lies in the fact that it is a rare example in Japan of an industrial union.

​​Japan’s labor unions are predominantly enterprise-based unions. These exist primarily in the larger corporations and are joined when workers first enter the company. The kind of requests they make to management generally revolve around improving individual workers’ compensation packages and working conditions. They generally don’t consider the interests of workers in the industry at large.

Additionally, members of an enterprise-union’s executive branch are absorbed back into the company’s personnel structure at the end of their terms. They are often, therefore, motivated to play ball with the company hierarchy in order to advance their careers, reducing the ability for enterprise-based unions to properly confront management on issues of workers’ rights. Working mainly at the convenience of each company, they function as labor unions in name only.

Industrial unions such as Kan-nama, on the other hand, have a fundamentally different structure. Rather than being limited by affiliation to a particular company, individual members join an industrial union based on their profession. The union’s executive branch goes up against company bosses to improve conditions for all participating members across a specific industry.

Individual workers are generally assumed to stand at a disadvantage when going up against management. It is precisely for that reason that the right for workers to unionize is recognized. And because industrial unions work to unite workers across a specific industry in solidarity against company bosses, they can be considered a true form of labor union.

Kan-nama attracts the ire of company bosses

Kan-nama was formed in 1965 with an initial membership of 183 concrete mixer drivers and heavy machinery operators. Together, they became active as a regional branch of the All Japan Construction and Transport Workers Solidarity Union.

During a period of mass layoffs and bankruptcies following the global oil shock of 1973, the union formed cooperative alliances with businesses to protect the rights of workers. This served to increase wages and help members in non-regular positions join the regular, contracted workforce.

By 1981, the industrial union had grown to 3,000 members.

But as the organization expanded, it also attracted the ire of company bosses.

The head of the Japan Business Association (then known as the Japan Federation of Employers’ Associations) between 1979 and 1987, Bunpei Otsuki – who also served as CEO of Mitsubishi Mining and Cement, among other positions feared the spread of the movement of Kan-nama in the western region to the rest of Japan. Also noted the activities of Kan-nama as a threat to “the very foundation of capitalism.”

It was during Otsuki’s time as head of the Japan Business Association that the suppression of Kan-nama by investigative authorities began, with prosecutions of 19 activities of labor union targeting the union’s executive branch from 1980 to 1983 alone.

A workforce made up of 40% non-regular employees

​​From then on, suppression of the union only continued. In 2005, Osaka police arrested Kan-nama boss Kenichi Take along with 6 other members of the executive branch.

Then, in 2018, the current round of efforts to squeeze the union began. Total arrests rose to 89, culminating in the prison sentence handed down to top union executive Yuji Yukawa. The investigations are the most wide-reaching in the union’s history and involve police activities covering the entire Kansai region.

The level of zeal exhibited by police is also then echoed by the investigations of public prosecutors.

On Aug. 9, 2018, then Deputy Prosecutor (now Prosecutor) Tada confirmed that it wasn’t just himself, or another lone individual, but a whole network of police and prosecutors involved in executing the investigations.

“There was talk of wiping Kan-nama out,” he said. “Of course, we will. We will  wipe the union out.”

That same year, throughout November and December, Prosecutor Mayuko Yoko sought to coerce withdrawals from the union via her investigations.

“Do you think your feelings of continuing to be a union member will not change? If you continue to be active in the union, the same thing will happen. Isn’t it senseless  to remain in the union under those circumstances?”

As the repressive activities of the authorities do indeed intensify, the question becomes: Why now?

I suspect this is because the political and economic elites now fear industrial trade unions more than ever before.

Suppression of Kan-nama by the authorities arrives against the Japanese economic situation with a backdrop of stagnating wages and a rise in non-regular employment.

There were 21 million non-regular employees in Japan in 2022 – almost 40% of the workforce. In 1990, that number stood at 8.8 million, meaning that over the course of the past 30 years, the proportion of the nation’s workforce in non-regular employment has increased almost 2.4 times over.

If you also look at annual wages, the average yearly wage in 1990 was ¥4.63 million, whereas it had fallen to ¥4.33 million by 2020.

In such circumstances, the nation’s workers are far more likely to become involved in industrial union activities. Therefore, the current suppression of Kan-nama can be read as a form of “warning” by authorities concerned by that likelihood.

Who is giving the orders?

However, there are certain areas of the regional judiciary willing to put the brakes on the excesses of police and public prosecutors in their attempts to suffocate Kan-nama – Osaka High Court being one of them.

On March 6, 2023, three union members including Deputy Secretary General Shingo Takeya were found not guilty by the Osaka High Court after an earlier guilty charge at Wakayama District court for attempted coercion and the forcible obstruction of business.

Of that earlier charge, Osaka High Court Judge Makoto Wada said: “The Kansai District Ready-Mixed Concrete Branch (Kan-nama) of the All Japan Construction and Transport Workers Solidarity Union should, as an industrial union, be considered a party to labor-related activities carried out by industrial employers and managers. The right to unionize is protected under Article 28 of the Constitution, while any attempts to infringe on that right are prohibited by law.”

Earlier, in December 2021, the Osaka High Court also overturned a guilty verdict handed to Kan-nama members by the Kyoto District Court.

There are, in addition, lawyers willing to take on court cases brought against the union by the state – among them Yuichi Kaido, Takeyoshi Ota, Kenta Hagio, Tetsuro Kinoshita, and Ryutaro Ogawa. Those lawyers argue that the arrests and indictments suffered by Kan-nama members since 2018 represent “assorted wrongful acts of criminal prosecution.”

​​Tansa also understands the arrests and indictments suffered by Kan-nama at the hands of the investigative branch to be acts of repression against the labor movement. We will continue to dig into this issue in order to discover who it is exactly ordering this crackdown and their intentions.

This isn’t an issue affecting Kan-nama alone. As the number of non-regular workers rises and wages continue to drop, this is an issue that affects the quality of life of all people throughout the country.

(Originally published in Japanese on March 7, 2023. Translation by Will Fee and Mana Shibata.)

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