In the spring jousting for higher wages, Japanese unions fall short

This was to have been the year when Japanese organized labor reasserted its leadership of the annual struggle for higher wages. One top union official rashly declared in mid-March that ''this is the year when we should bark like a bulldog.''

The bulldog, however, has proved to be toothless.

The annual spring labor offensive, known as ''shunto,'' is nearly over, with the militants in disarray. For the first time since the shunto formula was introduced in 1955, there was no paralyzing transport strike by private and Japanese national railway workers. The traditional revolutionary slogan chanting and displays of red flags were also considerably more subdued than in the past.

Although the final figure has yet to be computed, it looks as if the average wage increase will be 7 percent for major corporations. Workers in smaller businesses may be fortunate to get 2 percent.

This is very much in line with recent years, but compares starkly with the 33 percent the major unions won in 1974 - just before the first oil shock brought an abrupt end to Japan's long era of high economic growth.

The pace-setting steel, automobile, and electronic appliance industries all settled within the 6 to 7 percent range. This was well below what the unions had been seeking (with their initial demands pegged around 12 percent).

Said an automobile industry executive: ''In the past we would have willingly paid any price for labor peace. Now there are far too many uncertainties.

''Fortunately, most of our workers realize this, and we don't have to face the threats that were common a few years ago.''

That was not how the script was supposed to read.

Leading unions settled for moderate pay increases throughout the second half of the 1970s to avoid an inflationary wage-price spiral. This year they were determined to win back the lost ground.

With inflation now well under control (the government predicts 4 percent this year), there was no need to moderate wage demands anymore, union negotiators argued at the start of the campaign. They also emphasized that real income has declined in the past couple of years because of higher taxes.

Management did not see it that way.

You are already among the best off in the world, they told their workers, so don't rock the boat. They cited recent low wage settlements in the United States and West Germany, where inflation is a much bigger problem.

Throughout big business there was a determination to hold down wages because of considerable gloom about the future of the economy. A recent survey of 865 of the biggest corporations found virtually all of them predicting lower sales and profits this year.

The key to the quiet shunto was the surprisingly quick acquiescence of steelworkers to a 6.36 percent increase. The steel industry is struggling, with domestic and foreign sales in a prolonged slump.

The steel mills told their unions: ''A big pay increase will break us. It's getting tougher all the time to stay competitive in world markets. If you want to save your jobs you've got to accept wage restraint.''

Moderation was also enforced in the public sector, where the government is in the midst of a major political crusade against deficit budgets and bureaucratic inefficiency.

Many observers already see this year's shunto as a turning point for organized labor. There is a definite political swing away from the left to the right.

The general council of trade unions (Sohyo), which used to yield absolute power, especially through its strongest supporter, the leftist council of public orporation workers unions (Korokyo), is seen to be rapidly losing its grip.

Korokyo has come under heavy public fire for its attitude that no matter what it does the government will always foot the bill. Its meek ''no strike'' attitude in this year's wage negotiations is seen as indicative of its growing isolation.

There are now four main union groupings in Japan, but moves are afoot for unification. The proponents of this are all advocates of labor-management harmony and against strikes to back wage demands.

This movement is being strongly pushed by the Japanese confederation of labor (Domei), the leader of right-wing unions.Domei appears to be increasingly successful in luring private enterprise unions away from Sohyo and into the moderate camp.

This trend is expected to accelerate as Japan is forced to pursue a low economic growth course in the year ahead.

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