Japanese unionists sing UAW tune: build Toyotas, Hondas in US

American trade unionists calling on Japanese carmakers to set up manufacturing facilities in the United States have an ally in the Confederation of Japan automobile Workers' Unions.

"Japanese manufacturers should have started making cars in the United States long before things reached this crisis stage," said Haruki Shimizu, secretary-general of the Japan Autoworkers Federation, whose 210,000 members are part of the 570,000-member confederation.

Ichiro Shioji, president of the confederation, has long advocated this step. Mr. Shimizu recognized in a recent interview that even if Japanese carmakers decided today to build cars in the United States, that would not necessarily end current pressure in the recession-hit US auto industry for restrictions on booming Japanese car imports.

"But," he continued, "of all the steps we could take, the most long-range, the best calculated to avoid protectionism, is to make cars in the United States."

(Honda, Japan's fourth largest carmaker, is building a manufacturing plant in Ohio, Toyota, Japan's largest carmaker, is talking with Ford about a joint venture to make small cars. Other Japanese manufacturers are still hesitating.)

Mr. Shimizu recalled Mr. Shioji's repeated efforts to get Japanese manufacturers moving in this direction.

"The united Auto Workers is one of the most progressive and internationalist of American trade unions," Mr. Shimizu said. "I know the American car industry's hourly wage is $16 [Japanese auto workers get $9 per hour], but it should be possible with good management for Japanese carmakers to build cars successfully in the United States. Volkswagen has done alright. Japanese carmakers should hve more confidence in their own resourcefulness and management skills, and not be so firghtened of leaving their own shores."

Mr. Shimizu's union, which includes workers in sales and auto parts manufacturing as well as carmaking, is part of the larger confederation of autoworkers. it also belongs to Domei, Japan's second-largest trade union group. Politically, it supports the moderate Democratic Socialists, while Sohyo , the largest trade union federation, is the main financial backer of the Socialists (who range from moderate to radical left).

Japanese trade unions are often accused of being company unions. "it is true we are companywide unions," said Mr. Shimizu. "Each unit includes all the workers in a particular company. But that does not make us company unions. We have our own sources of information on how well a particular company is doing, and we bargain hard. But gradually, the old style of bargaining purely overwages within the context of a single company is giving way to a wider concept.

"This year, for instance, Domei sat a target of 8 percent for wage increases. Sohyo put forward 8 percent as its minimum. And the most influential federation in the private sector, the japan Committee of the International Metalworkers Union, also demanded 8 percent. These demands were based on our respective analyses of the economy as a whole as well as of individual industries.

"Each individual union then bargained with the management of its particular company. In our industry we won an average of 7.1 to 7.3 percent. Some smaller unions in companies that were doing particularly well got the full 8 percent. In depressed industries, such as shipbuilding, wage settlements were as low as 6 to 7 percent.

"We're also," he added, "much more interested now in the total package of benefits -- pensions, retirement age, medical benefits, and so forth, than just in wages, as we used to by. The emphasis here must be on elimination of unfairness, whether as regards taxes, or social welfare guarantees, or income [ workers in sales get less than workers in industry]."

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