General Union Wins Continued Employment For Members After Coco Juku Collapse

coco union winIn February (2019), the language teaching industry was again shocked (but perhaps not surprised) by the announcement that the Nichii Gakkan-owned Coco Juku would cease operations, following in the footsteps of both NOVA and GEOS around a decade ago.

Perhaps more shocking, however, was the treatment of the employees by both the company and the in-house union (the Nichii Gakkan Labor Union) - a union that employees were required to join. 

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WHAT HAPPENED?

In short, workers at Coco Juku were told that the schools were closing, and given a simple "A or B" choice in regards to what to do with this news.

As the Japan Times put it:

 

Following the quiet closure of 51 of its Coco Juku English-language schools across Japan on March 31, Nichii Gakkan Co. said [...] it plans to offer refunds to students and transfer teachers to other divisions at the company to ensure they still have jobs.

"Students will be offered refunds for the points that they hadn't used for lessons," the company wrote. "As for employees, we plan to ensure their jobs by transferring them to other divisions that best suit them."

Still, worries persist over the fate of the employees as 15 more English-language schools are expected to be closed in June. As of December, the firm's 72 Coco Juku locations nationwide were staffed by approximately 560 employees, including teachers, counselors, instructors and managers, among others, according to the operator.

- Takahashi Ryusei, The Japan Times

Although Japanese and Filipino staff were sent off to work at other Nichii Gakkan enterprises, other language teachers were given only two choices: either transfer to GABA (a wholly owned subsidiary) or take three months of severance pay.

In response this, teachers started to push back - only to be told both the company and the union that was supposed to represent their interests that they had no other options other than the two already given to them.

To make matters worse, employees were given these "A or B" choices after the in-house union had entered collective bargaining with the company, only to accept what the company was offering without the vote or consent of its members.

Although branch officers were consulted at before each step of that collective bargaining process, and members were encouraged to offer their opinions via phone and e-mail, the process itself was held with only executive committee members - of which only two were from the Coco Juku block.

On top of this, foreign instructors were being treated differently than other Japanese and Filipino staff members, and objections of the officers block and branch were being dismissed because they were "slowing down negotiations".

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WHAT IS THE NICHII GAKKAN LABOR UNION?

The Nichii Gakkan Labor Union (a member of UA Zensen) is the union that the Coco Juku block - the in-house union (aka "Union Shop") - belonged to.

Comprising around 500 people, the Coco Juku block was one of about twelve blocks in the Nichii Gakkan Labor Union, and also the smallest block, having also been made separate for language teaching concerns.

New hires of Coco Juku were required to join the Nichii Gakkan Labor Union as a condition of their employment, with Nichii Gakkan Labor Union subsequently providing union representation for them (unless they were already members of another union).

Although required to be part of a union as a condition of employment, new employees were not forced to join the Nichii Gakkan Labor Union in particular per se - they just had to be a member of a labor union, even if it was not the Nichii Gakkan Labor Union.

However, the company had a reputation for not being entirely forthcoming with this information, as the General Union itself has previously commented on:

Interested in leaving the compulsory, in-house, union? The company won't tell you this, but it's completely legal to leave.

The nature of the agreement between the company and the "union" is such that, legally, you have the choice of what union to be in. While we usually don't recommend that people leave their union, not all unions are the same...

We feel it is warranted at Coco Juku. 

The General Union has negotiated with the company over the issue, and the company has recognised the rights of employees to join the union of their choice.

In fact, we have had people leave the in-house union and join us with no adverse effect.

- General Union via Facebook (July, 2016)

Suffice to say, if someone was not already a member of a different union prior to beginning emplopyment with Coco Juku, they would become a member of the the in-house union until such time as they either joined a different union (such as the General Union) or left the company.

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ENTER THE GENERAL UNION

Frustrated by both the company and the in-house union, over twenty Coco Juku employees finally decided to look to the General Union for help.

The General Union soon began its own collective bargaining with Nichii Gakkan (the company) with the sole demand of guaranteeing the continued employment of all General Union members.

At first, the company balked at even the idea of meeting the General Union for negotiations in Osaka, but soon relented under threat of a union suit against them for unfair labour practices at the Osaka Prefectures Labour Commission.

We finally met, and Nichii Gakkan reiterated their promise of employment for all.

Our members stood firm in their demands that there be no forced employment at GABA and that they continue to be employed by Nichii Gakkan in the future.

Again, however, the company tried to force the retirement of members by announcing that if they would not accept the Nichii Gakkan Labor Union (vis-a-vis UA Zensen) agreed-upon settlement, they would be forced to stay home at 60% wages.

In response to this, our members stood up and gave the company their own ultimatum: "Re-employ us, or we'll just show up to work anyway."

The General Union immediately submitted demand for continued employment at 100% wages.

We are very very proud to announce that the company has relented and, during negotiations with the GU, has said that it will keep General Union members at home with full wages.

When we stand up, companies back down.

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