Advocating Alternative Models for Community & Labor Organizing in Japan

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Tokyo  Ken Yamazaki is the deputy senior research officer in the international affairs branch of the Japan Institute for Labor Policy and Training, a Phd, just published author on community organizing, and a helluva guy in my book.  Having visited New Orleans recently with his delegation as they tried to better understand labor and community organizing, when I said there was a chance I could come by Japan en route to a commitment in Korea, he jumped to the task to cobble some pieces together to help pay the freight for this side trip to Tokyo and eastern Japan to the footprint of the earthquake and tsunami.  Within days he said, no problem, you’ll need to do a seminar.  I should have been suspicious when the topic seemed to be history of community organizing, proscriptions for rebuilding the labor movement, and, yes, and…what we had learned in New Orleans about rebuilding after disaster from Hurricane Katrina.

One thing led to another and the next thing I knew as it came closer to the date, the seminar was really more like a lecture, and the topic was a combination of all of these things and 130 or so people were already committed, having responded to the call.  The location was going to be in the auditorium of Liberty Tower at Meiji University it turned out, but that wasn’t really clear until Ken walked me into the tower an hour before the scheduled beginning.  As we had traveled around eastern Japan, I was starting to understand, since I had prepared one paper for him for the money and then at the last minute needed to ship off to Tokyo the appendix from Battle for the Ninth Ward, my last book, entitled “The Organizer’s Short Guide to Rebuilding after Disasters.”  I’m used to some high wire trapeze work without a net working across cultures and languages, but my comrade and colleague might have gotten me higher that I was ready for in order to dance for my supper in Tokyo.

members of the panel

When I finally got the list of panelists who were going to respond to my “lecture,” I knew I needed to hustle and step up to the mark.  Ken was moderating the panel that would give comments and ask questions on my remarks, but it included Yoji Tatsui, a key researcher for the Japanese Trade Union Congress (JTUC- RENGO) who was the Deputy Director of their Research Institute for Advancement of Living Standards, (closest to me in the picture of the panelists), Yoshitake Obata, a founder of the Edogawa Community Workers Union and activist with the Network of Community Unions of Japan, who had visited ACORN International and A Community Voice in late 2008 about living wage campaigns in New Orleans and written for Social Policy, Takanarita Takeshi with the Japanese Workers Cooperative Union whose work we had seen in the disaster zone and who had written about the work in a forthcoming article in Social Policy, and, very interestingly, Makoto Kawazoe, the Secretary-General, of Shutoken Seinen Union, the general union of Young Workers in Tokyo.

Ken Yamazaki introducing me

It all went well enough, and I hope I made in difference.  Puzzling out reactions through translations is difficult, and when I heard different translators had been called to duty on almost every page, one pauses to think how it might have come together for the readers, but at least they have their own puzzling they can do later.

They took seriously my notion of “majority unionism,” and it provoked comment.  The notions of “community unions” connected to the major labor federation I continue to find fascinating.  How much they are involved in organizing was hard to tell, but work on living wages counts for a lot in my book, so I’m looking forward to learning more.  The young workers union was also of interest.   We ran into a similar effort recently in El Alto in Bolivia.  Neither effort is very large yet, but both focused on informal or irregular workers, as they are called in Japan.  These are large gaps and established unions, judging from Brother Tatsui’s responses, see them positively.

Tatsui’s questions from the point of view of the institutional labor movement were excellent.  He was interested in whether current workers had more loyalty to the company or the community?  Japan is obviously legendary for the commitment workers have to their firms, but I shared with him what we had learned organizing Walmart workers in high turnover retail.  The commitment was to their sense of themselves as being “skilled” in retail and though they may have left Walmart, most of them were going through the cycle:  Target, Home Depot, and, often as not, back to Walmart and around again.  The “community” was the network of jobs and the workers who did them, and neither the company nor the geographical area.

This is an important dialogue, and Ken Yamazaki understood fully, even if it had taken me awhile to catch on, what he was doing and what he hoped from me.  He, like so many of us now in the United States, has come to believe that community-labor models offer hope for revitalizing labor, and he understands that there is a lot about community organizing methodology that speaks to a possible future for labor’s next stage.  The conversation has now been engaged.  Walking into the night, I could taste how much people wanted to be part of the discussion in Japan – I did, too!

Now, it needs to happen everywhere!  Then, we must move past talk to real action.

Makoto Kawazoe (the Young Workers leader) on the right and Takanarita Takeshi from the Japanese Workers Cooperative Union
Ken and some of the other panel members honoring the tradition of sharing a meal after