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Japanese labor faces spring wage drive in Wintry mood

Final preparations for this year's spring wage offensive find Japanese organized labor in considerable disarray. There is apparently no key sector, public or private, able to play the traditional spearheading role.

Unions are fragmented, particularly by political differences, since the opposition parties they have traditionally supported did so badly in last summer's general election.

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There are moves afoot to replace the present four main labour groupings with a single powerful entity, along the lines of the AFL-CIO or Britain's Trades Union Congress.

But this hardly creates a climate for pushing through demands for substantial wage increases and adoption of a five- day workweek this year.

Japanese salaries are traditionally raised at the start of the new business year April 1, leading to the postwar emergence of the spring labor offensive known as "shunto." Over a period of weeks or even months, millions of unionists stage sporadic strikes, go-slows, workshop rallies, and street marches.

Usually one key industry (traditionally it was steel, and more recently automaking) settles, creating a precedent around which other sectors maneuver depending on the economic circumstances of individual companies.

This year, major labor groups are seeking a 10 percent pay increase, which means about $90 to $100 on the average Japanese salary of $900 a month (considerably supplemented by fringe benefits and semiannual bonuses equivalent to several months' pay).

Employers want to hold the line at 6.7 percent, the average of last year's awards.

The unions feel their demand is not excessive in view of the fact that inflation last year topped 7 percent.

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There is a widespread feeling that labor, rather than management, has been forced to carry an unfair share of the heavy burden imposed on the Japanese economy, primarily by the rising cost of crude oil imports.

Thus the slogan for the spring campaign: "Stable economic growth through expanded consumer spending," resulting from higher pay.

Management is insisting that raises be held within the increase in productivity to avoid being inflationary (labor says that because of inflation last year, wages, in fact, have fallen behind productivity gains).

A report by the federation of employers' associations argues that Japan has outperformed the rest of the world industrially in recent times only because of moderate wage increases.

It concedes that Japanese workers have suffered a decline in real wages, but points out that Americans and Europeans are in worse shape, with double-digit inflation.

With government backing, management is insisting that the Japanese economy is still beset by sluggish consumer spending and slow industrial production, with the outlook far from promising for the sectors that have traditionally led the way on wage settlements.

The main problem for the unions at present is finding someone to lead the way. The public sector -- in various government offices and public corporations , as well as the national railways -- faces government determination to slash spending as part of a national financial reconstruction program to end chronic budgetary deficits.

The Council of Public Corporation and Government Workers' Unions (Korokyo) admits with an air of resignation that it hasn't even begun to draft its demands.

It is hampered by the depression that settled over its parent body, the 4 million-strong General Council of Trade Unions (Sohyo) after the crushing defeat of the opposition parties in last year's general election. Sohyo supports the Socialist Party.

Within Korokyo's ranks, the two main unions of national railways are absorbed in fighting a court case brought by management claiming about $10 million damages for disruptions to services caused by a long struggle for restoration of the right to strike.

The postal worker's union leadership in disarray after losing a struggle against post office plans to increase productivity, while telecommunications workers are still recovering from defeat over their demands for special allowances.

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