For the first time in 16 years, a prime minister from the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) participated in a convention of Japan’s largest trade union national center, the Japanese Trade Union Confederation (commonly referred to as Rengo). In Prime Minister Kishida Fumio’s speech at the occasion, he praised Rengo’s efforts in achieving the highest rate of increase of wages in 30 years and emphasized the need for further gains, aiming for an approximate 50 percent increase in the current nominal minimum wage by the mid-2030s.
The spectacle of the head of the LDP fashioning himself as a champion of labor rights was odd at its face. Rengo has been – and still remains – a major benefactor of the opposition party members. However, Kishida’s appearance at the Rengo meeting reflected the LDP’s ongoing effort to peel off the opposition-friendly labor vote.
Founded in 1989, Rengo came into existence following a merger between the major private and public sector labor unions, which traditionally had not seen eye to eye. Although membership in Rengo has shrunk since its 1994 peak of 12 million, the organization currently counts around 7 million members. It continues to be one of the major interest groups in Japan, exerting influence in politics by utilizing its machine to elect delegates who represent the interests of certain industries and sectors.
However, in recent years Rengo has been beset by a complicated internal strife resulting from tensions between private and public labor unions, which predated the establishment of the federation.
One irreconcilable difference arises in energy policy. The 2011 Fukushima Nuclear Disaster raised awareness of the potential perils of nuclear energy, resulting in a surge of opposition. Turning away from nuclear energy is high on the Japanese progressive agenda and is embraced by the public sector labor unions, which carry similar inclinations. On the other hand, recognizing the need for nuclear energy for a country with a vibrant industrial sector and scarce natural resources, Rengo has come out in support of restarting nuclear power plants, based on the understanding of local residents.
Another dividing line between the two types of labor union concerns the proximity with the Japanese Communist Party. Parliamentarians backed by public unions are generally supportive of closer ties with the JCP to enhance electoral prospects. However, private union-backed legislators, who tend to be more hawkish on defense, have vehemently opposed aligning themselves with the communists. The JCP advocates for the eventual dissolution of the Japanese Self-Defense Forces (JSDF) and the Japan-U.S. security treaty, which is seen in Japan as an important pillar protecting the nation from external threats.
Although there have always been underlying tensions with Rengo, the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) seemed to have succeeded in defusing those differences – until the 2012 election, where the DPJ experienced a wipeout. The marginalization of the DPJ forced the party into soul searching, which ultimately led to the clash between private and public labor union-oriented members over how to revitalize the party. The more liberal public sector side seemed to have won the turf wars during the final days of the DPJ, which rebranded itself as Minshintō (民進党) – literally translating as Democratic Progressive Party – in 2016, while using the Democratic Party (DP) as their official English name.
Several incidents were emblematic of those trends. In 2015, when controversial security legislation that opened up the path for the JSDF to operate alongside foreign militaries, was debated in the Diet, the opposition party (still known as the DPJ at the time) came out strongly against it. The opposition came largely due to the influence of the Teacher’s Union, one of the public sector labor unions, which has played an important role in nurturing pacifism in post-war Japan.
The following year, in the 2016 Niigata Prefecture gubernatorial election, the restart of the local nuclear power plant was a central issue. Rengo refused to back a candidate out of concern that it would raise temperatures within the party, but the DP – now the DPJ’s new moniker – went ahead and supported an anti-nuclear candidate – another victory for the public sector-affiliated unions.
The year 2017 was when the differences within the Democratic Party and Rengo became truly irreconcilable. Prominent conservative members of the party started to leave the DP in response to the party leadership’s decision to pursue electoral cooperation with the JCP. And newly elected leader Maehara Seiji’s decision to split the party along ideological lines, excluding the public labor union-affiliated legislators from entering the Party of Hope (PoH), became the final blow for the remnants of the DP.
The dissolution of the former DP not only divided the party itself but ultimately divided Rengo, as two parties representing labor unions emerged from the process. One became the Democratic Party for the People (DPFP), the successor party of the PoH, backed by private labor unions, and the other was the Constitutional Democratic Party, which consists of members affiliated with public labor unions. Since the split transpired, Rengo has been attempting to reunify the two labor union parties, to no avail.
Sensing the opportunity to further divide their once major adversary, and possibly to lure away the labor vote, the LDP has been growing closer with Rengo. The ruling party has taken measures to increase its appeal toward unions, especially since Abe Shinzo started his second bid for prime minister in 2013. Abe used the levers of his political office to pressure businesses to raise wages by involving the government in annual meetings between unions and employers, which empowered labor unions. Moreover, Abe became the first prime minister in 13 years to attend the May Day meeting sponsored by Rengo.
Although Abe was in a sense a pioneer in pushing the LDP into a more labor-friendly direction, Kishida has intensified those efforts. Since Kishida took office, contacts between the LDP and Rengo leadership have been widely reported. There are even speculations that the private labor union-backed DPFP may join the LDP-Komeito ruling coalition, although this has been denied by both Kishida and Tamaki Yuichiro, leader of the DPFP.
However, Kishida’s recent appointment of Yada Wakako, a former DPFP member who was the organizational candidate of Rengo-affiliated private unions, as an adviser to the prime minister has made his intentions clear. He is aiming to pursue policies that would work for the benefit of Rengo, providing reasons for the labor federations to seriously consider switching their allegiance to the LDP.
Rengo’s flirtation with the LDP is evidence of labor federation frustration with their own diminishing influence in electoral politics, and the rebellious attitude of the CDP, which has been heavily influenced by progressive activists. On issue after issue, the CDP and its predecessors have gone against the preferred stances of the federation, whether on nuclear energy or on cooperation with the JCP. The former is supported by Rengo while the latter has been categorically opposed.
By expanding ties with the LDP, Rengo may be groping for an alternative vehicle to promote worker’s rights, due to being disenchanted by the low prospect of the two labor union-backed parties coming to terms with one another in the foreseeable future. However, even if Rengo turns Machiavellian and pledges allegiance to the LDP, it is doubtful they can maximize their interests, taking into account that Keidanren, a federation of Japan’s major business, has been openly supportive of the LDP.
Kishida’s overtures to his party’s decades-old foe could inadvertently be seen as a sign of weakness. The urgency with which Kishida is courting Rengo may have been influenced by the growing resignation among the Japanese public that the prime minister is unable to improve their lives.
Kishida is also under pressure due to the unstable relationship with Komeito, his coalition partner. Komeito had denounced the LDP back in May, following skirmishes over electoral districts, although the rift seems to have subsided in recent months.
Even if Kishida is able to lure the Rengo leadership into his party’s orbit, it is hard to imagine that the rest of the labor unions would follow suit, considering that the private and public labor unions are openly in revolt against the federation by supporting different parties and policy issues. Nevertheless, the current fluidity of the labor vote is unprecedented, and Kishida’s continuing effort to peel off part of this bloc may yield some results in the long run.