In an unusual court fight, unionized teachers at Berlitz Japan have been defending the right to strike in Japan for the past 22 months.
The battle between Berlitz and Begunto, the union representing its teachers, began on 13 Dec 2007. While managers held a party at the Roppongi Hills Grand Hyatt, the union launched a strike by picketing outside.
In 2007 and 2008, Berlitz and its parent company Benesse Corp. were enjoying record profits. Berlitz teachers, not having received a raise in 16 years, were demanding a 4.6% pay hike and a bonus equivalent to a month’s pay. The strike grew into Japan’s language school industry’s largest ever sustained strike with more than 100 English, Spanish, and French teachers downing chalk.
Begunto opened a second front by filing an unfair labour practices suit at the Tokyo Labour Commission on 17 Nov 2008. The union alleges Berlitz illegally interfered with the strike by sending a letter to teachers telling them the strike was illegal and to stop walking out.
On 3 Dec 2008, Berlitz sued the five teachers volunteering as Begunto executives plus the National Union of General Workers Tokyo Nambu president and Louis Carlet, former Begunto case officer for NUGW and current Executive President of Zenkoku Ippan Tokyo General Union. The suit also names NUGW Tokyo Nambu and its Begunto branch as defendants. Claiming the strike is illegal, Berlitz sued for ¥110 million in damages. While the lawsuit lacks legal precedent, rather than risk the dismissal of union members, Begunto suspended the strike until the lawsuit is settled.
Berlitz fired two of the five teachers it’s suing anyway. One received word of his dismissal just before shipping out to Afghanistan as an American army reservist at the end of July 2009. The other was sacked 3 July 2010 after taking too long to recover from cancer. Begunto is fighting both dismissals at the Tokyo Labour Commission.
Berlitz also let their legal blitz sink into a quagmire. From the first hearing on 26 Jan 2009, Berlitz’s lawyers repeatedly failed to submit documents or submitted them late. Their legal argument for declaring the strike illegal and their calculations to arrive at a figure of ¥110 million in damages remain unclear.
Legal experts I spoke to say the firm that Berlitz hired for the case specializes in helping corporations win labour disputes and that delaying is a standard tactic.
Since Dec 2009, the company and union have engaged in court-mediated reconciliation talks. Such talks settle the vast majority of civil suits in Japan. Berlitz told the court they would drop their lawsuit if Begunto gave a week’s notice before striking a lesson. Since teachers typically learn their schedule the night before, the judge instructed Berlitz to come up with a more reasonable offer.
Berlitz’s latest offer requested strike notification by 3 p.m. the day before for contract teachers and 5 p.m. the day before for per-lesson teachers. Begunto executives took the offer back to union members for consideration after pointing out to the judge that per-lesson teachers don’t receive their schedule until 6 p.m.
The outcome of the lawsuit will have a far-reaching impact. Article 28 of Japan’s constitution guarantees workers the right to organize, bargain collectively, and strike. “This is surely going to be an important case,” said Hideyuki Morito, a professor of law at Sophia University. Carlet also stressed its importance explaining, “This may turn out to be one of the biggest labour court cases in recent history and perhaps the biggest case ever over the right to strike.”
The next round of reconciliation talks and Tokyo Labour Commission hearings are both scheduled for 6 September.
Carlet, L. (2008, September 30). Berlitz strike grows despite naysayers. The Japan Times. Retrieved from <search.japantimes.co.jp/cgi-bin/fl20080930zg.html>
McCrostie, J. (2009, February 17). Berlitz launches legal blitz against striking instructors. The Japan Times. Retrieved from <search.japantimes.co.jp/cgi-bin/fl20090217zg.html>
McCrostie, J. (2009, April 28). Berlitz blitz against union bogs down. The Japan Times. Retrieved from <search.japantimes.co.jp/cgi-bin/fl20090428zg.html>
Spiri, J. (2008, May 6). As parent firm posts record profits, Berlitz teachers strike back. The Japan Times. Retrieved from <search.japantimes.co.jp/cgi-bin/fl20080506zg.html>