The future role of labor unions

2022 / 3 / 21 | Author: enw_editor

Movements to unionize spreading across the U.S.

In December 2021, a U.S. Starbucks made the news when it became the company’s first store to form a labor union in the nation. The company maintains that the union is unnecessary, but employees from roughly 60 more stores are following suit by taking action to unionize, and the trend is only gaining momentum.

In January 2021, employees at Google formed the company’s first union while similar efforts to unionize at Apple retail stores have also received press. Likewise, an election rerun has been ordered at one of Amazon’s fulfillment centers after the company interfered with an election last year that voted against forming a union.

Similar developments emerge in Japan

In many cases, disruptive tech companies such as GAFA, or the Big Four, have not had labor unions thus far, and in the case of gig workers taking on contract jobs through online platforms, the option to organize a union and negotiate has not even been on the table. However, the tide is slowly starting to turn.

In Japan, the movement has not stopped at individual efforts like the formation of a union at a foreign apparel brand (in Japanese). There have been developments like the creation of the Freelance Union (in Japanese) by three labor unions with participation from Uber Eats delivery workers, Yamaha English School teachers and other independent contractors.

In addition, an Uber Eats delivery worker seeking the right to collectively bargain with the company filed a complaint with the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Labor Relations Commission, and the results could set a precedent that prohibits companies from denying collective bargaining on the basis that they are web-based platforms with no direct employer relationship.

Can companies and employees be on equal footing?

Among Japanese companies there are also major corporations that do not have labor unions such as Recruit and Daiwa House. As more workers take on non-regular employment, the rate of participation in unions formed around regular employees hovers at 16%, undermining the reason for their existence. Some also view movements to unionize negatively, as they put pressure on corporate management.

However, an employee’s right to unionize and negotiate with their employers — freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining — is one of the four areas of the Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work established by the International Labour Organization (ILO). As companies’ responsibility on human rights, at a minimum, they are required to adhere to this policy that is also addressed in the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.

Companies without labor unions claim that they have fostered equal relationships with employees individually and therefore have no need for unions.

Of course, problems are not necessarily solved by the creation of a union, and when organizations are rigid or only factor in a segment of their workforce, the rights of workers will not be protected.

Even still, the reality is that absolute power differentials will arise between companies and individuals, especially at larger companies. With the exception of a group of highly specialized and independent laborers and contractors, it is difficult to forge relationships of equality, and there will invariably be people that get left behind.

If companies believe they do not need labor unions, they need to demonstrate that employees really think they are fine without them and that problems are not cropping up as a result of not having them.

The role of unions from the perspective of human rights due diligence and employee engagement

Even as we steadfastly protect the fundamental rights of workers, it is critical that we continue to reevaluate the role of labor unions to keep up with social changes. For instance, we can view unions not as opponents fighting over matters such as wage negotiations, but as allies that avert problems based on worker feedback. When it comes to facilitating the due diligence process to identify negative impacts to human rights, unions are indispensable partners.

In recent years there has been interest in human capital in management, and for the many companies focused on improving employee engagement, labor unions could have an important role to play. Mitsui People Union is already ambitiously pursuing union activities (in Japanese), as described in their action plan stressing the importance of promoting member engagement.

As non-regular employment and the gig economy continue to ramp up, the government has a big role to play in terms of establishing safety nets, but it is also crucial that companies adjust their perspective on unions and come to regard them as important stakeholders to management.

Takeshi Nozawa (Author), Translation by Melody Poland