Editor:Tsutomu Uwagawa
Address:Rodo-Soken,Union Corp 3-3-1 Takinogawa,Kitaku,Tokyo,Japan(114)
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Struggle against Lean Production System

Takao Kimura

Assistant Professor of Nagoya Economics University,
Member of Aichi Labor Institute


A Toyota's production system became widely known all over the world, as a group at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) named it lean production system in its work, titled gThe Machine that Changed the World (1990).h They recommended the Toyota's production system enabling various kinds of products at low cost as a 21st century's standard production system that will replace the traditional mass-production method. The book created a great sensation and it instantly became a bible of the world's management. Toyota city, Toyota system's hometown, became a gnew sacred placeh where managers visit from all over the world.

The book's logic, however, contains something seriously wrong. It completely lacks the analysis on the labor-management relations, taking no notice of Toyota's peculiar form of labor control, something incompatible with the Toyota production system. The MIT group concludes that under the lean production system, workers are guaranteed stable employment, salaries and the best of welfare programs, so that they work feeling the sense of fulfillment and satisfaction in an atmosphere of creative tension. I have not seen such a description ever made as far from the reality.

Workers are suffering so much from the intense control and exploitation the company imposes upon them under the Toyota production system. It is also important to take into account that a few but powerful, democratic activists are carrying forward their struggle constantly and energetically even in the Toyota's workplaces. In this article I would like to report how Japanese workers have waged their struggle against the lean production system.

1. Struggle of Toyota Workers

(1) In Workplaces and Districts

Japanese workers are carrying on the struggle against the lean production system in various scenes of society. The first example I should give is Toyota workers' resistance against the system.

First, in Toyota Motor Corporation, democratic activists of whom are successors the tradition of militant struggle, and the Toyota Motor Committee as one of the Japanese Communist Party's branches exist, and they are acting openly. Despite the severe restrictions, activists and the JCP branch daily explain and call upon the workers to support their policies by publishing regular workplace newspaper, conducting propaganda actions in front of the factories, or making speeches in the workplace rallies. Through these efforts, they are trying to grasp the workers' demands and to realize them. In the election for trade union officers that takes place every two years, they present their own candidates calling for an improved wage and working conditions, along with the democratization of workplaces and union.

In Nishi-Mikawa area, Aichi Prefecture, Toyota's home ground, Toyota-related companies and subcontractors are concentrated. In these companies as well, especially in those included in the Toyota Group such as Denso Corp., Aishin Seiki Co., Ltd., Toyota Automatic Loom Works, Ltd., Toyota Auto Body Co., Ltd. and Toyoda Machine Works, Ltd., democratic activists are operating. In some workplaces activists remain a minority, or sometimes only one such activist is there, but even in such cases they are energetic and tenacious. They publish a regular workplace newspaper, and carry out other kinds of actions.

Second is the activity called gToyota General Action,h in which workers of the whole district participate. In Nishi-Mikawa area, along with the workers of Toyota and Toyota-related companies, many local trade unions and democratic organizations bring themselves together in the movement to make the demands on Toyota. Toyota exercises a tremendous influence not only over its related companies and subcontractors but also over the local communities. Backed up by this power of influence, Toyota imposes some various kinds of burdens and sacrifices upon its related companies and local communities. Toyota General Action aims to denounce Toyota's such outrage and put it under the regulation by the whole communities. Toyota General Action started in 1981 under the name of gPropaganda Campaign to Besiege Toyota,h and ever since then it has become an annual event. On the general action day, activists present gwritten demandsh to Toyota, while conducting a propaganda campaign in front of the factories, company housing areas and communities. Before the general action, with the cooperation of researchers and people of different fields, they organize gToyota symposiumh to promote exchange of@information on the real conditions of each workplace and community as well as the actual situation of the struggle. By this, they work out concrete demands to thrust them at Toyota.

In various ways Toyota has tried to restrict and obstruct the Toyota General Action. When workers presented the written demands for the first time, Toyota ignored the document by treating it as a lost article. The company and the union leaders together made a severe interference in workers' propaganda action with microphone and handbill distribution. Yet since the second general action, the company has received the written demands and talked with the workers. It still tries to obstruct the action, but has gradually become more modest, refraining from adopting an open, unconcealed attitude. As the Toyota General Action becomes firmly established by the workers' continuous efforts during a long period, it is now impossible for Toyota to ignore it but to deal with it properly.

In this way, workers carry forward the layered struggle against Toyota in workplaces and districts. They take up demands in the workplace newspaper, bring them to the Labor Standards Inspection Office, and hold symposiums to launch the General Action to make them widely known. All these efforts have obliged Toyota to face them. Adopting these methods in their struggle, activists, though they may be just a small minority at workplace level, have presented a wide range of demands and won some certain achievements.

(2) Achievements of the Struggle

Now let me refer to some important achievements obtained in the struggle in Toyota and Toyota groups.

1) Workers succeeded in getting the company give up reducing the lump-sum payment or pay in other form. That Toyota pays high wages is a false image. Toyota has a peculiar wage system; 20 to 30 percent of the total wage one worker receives goes to extra wages such as overtime pay and night-shift allowance. Because of this system, once the business becomes slack and the company cuts back on operations, workers' difficulties in making their living due to the sharp cut in wages would attract public attention. The prolonged recession of these years has aggravated the workers' living conditions, and consequently workers are now increasingly discontent with their salaries and lump-sum payments. When the company proposed the cut in the lump-sum payment by 10 percent of salary once a month in 1988, they could not stop it but achieved the company's compensating the reduction in the name of gcooperation allowance.h In winter, 1993, when the company made a proposal intended to reverse the annual agreement on lump-sum payment that they had already reached, the struggle arose against this attempt. In the end the company had to withdraw the proposal. In 1995, the company made a similar proposal with the same intention, and this time again workers succeeded in making the company take back the proposal.
2) The company has discriminated the activists in promotion. Through the general action and bringing this problem to the Labor Standards Inspection Office, workers succeeded in correcting such discrimination. Some activists have even been promoted to managerial posts.
3) Workers won a 10-minute rest before overtime works (but without pay.)
4) Workers went to the Labor Standards Inspection Office against the company for the forced filling in of the reason for taking paid holidays, and achieved to stop it.
5) Against the company's proposal to move up the start of a night shift from 21:00 to 20:00, workers launched a campaign in the workplace and district to prevent it. They made the problem clear by emphasizing that maintaining the double-income family would be impossible; that the proposal would deprive the worker's life of the pleasures of a happy home; that it would mess up the life rhythm; and that it would bring about a traffic congestion in the evening. The campaign ended in success and the proposed time was changed into 20:30. This happened in 1988.
6) Workers won the abolition of what they called Toyota calendars that forced them work on Saturdays and Sundays and put their social life in serious confusion. Electricity bills are less expensive on holidays, so Toyota made Saturdays and Sundays work days during five weeks from July through August, and either Thursdays and Fridays or Mondays and Tuesdays off. In Toyota area, where most of the workers and subcontractors operate based on the Toyota calendar, so that the arbitrary change of the calendar with preference given to the company's interests caused serious confusion in the whole community. Various local organizations and the JCP's local assembly members took action, such as the Toyota General Action. The problem became a big social issue, and Toyota was obliged to give up the calendar with Saturdays and Sundays as work days only a year after 1987.
7) Workers denounced the gunpaid workh imposed upon them in various forms before the Labor Standards Inspection Office, and get the company to pay for it. They also achieved the payment for the quality control circle activity, study on ISO (International Standardization Organization), and training courses as overtime work. In a recent case of the group companies, workers succeeded in getting the company to pay thirty-two million yens for overtime work done in eight months. They got the company to allow presentations on QC at factory, department and section levels being held within the regular working hours. The company agreed that the morning assembly and meeting before starting the work, as well as the security education after the working hour, should be held within the regular working hour. They also won the payment for a part of overtime work even in the engineering sector where unpaid work was widespread to such an extent that it had become nature of the company's constitution.
8) Workers brought to the Labor Standards Inspection Office on charge of the company's forcing them to make creative and inventive plans, and got the Office to guide the company to stop it.
9) Workers revealed the facts of gconcealing labor accidentsh prevailing in Toyota-related companies. They managed to get the authorities to recognize some cases that the company had treated illness due to private causes as labor accidents. They also got the company to recognize accidents that had taken place inside the company's site as labor accidents. They won the opening of a night clinic in each factory.
10) Workers won some improvement in the undemocratic election system for union officers. In Toyota union officers' election held in 1971, a candidate supported by the democratic activists and union members ran for the president and obtained 21.0 percent of the votes. Astonished by this, the company and union leaders adversely revised the union officers' election rule. The new system required recommender-signatures of 50 persons to run for each president, vice president and secretary general, department head and senior officer, and signatures of 15 persons for an executive committee member. They set extremely severe conditions for the way of collecting signatures; an autograph with a seal was necessary, no advertising campaign was allowed, only two copies of signature paper for recommendation of the candidate were available. All these made it impossible for workers voluntarily to run for the election. Apart from these regulations, they conduct the election under a completely undemocratic system. They allow no electoral campaign excepting putting up of posters (that shows only the candidate's name) and speech rallies where one person cannot speak more than five minutes; polling places has no partition; candidates cannot observe the ballot counting, and the company and management watch and interfere in the election process. Despite such conditions, activists have never given up running for the election, calling for the democratization of the election system. Since 1972, they have achieved some improvement in the system; they made it possible to hold speech rallies, changed the way of voting from singed balloting into selective-marking on candidates, and made five copies of recommender-signature papers instead of two available.
11) Workers denounced the human rights violation and got some cases corrected. In Denso Corp. girls' dormitory, there was a phone call list to check from whom and to whom the call was, and workers had this list taken away. In Toyoda Machine Works Ltd., just as the workers inaugurated the publication of workplace newspaper in 1988, human rights violation against activists started. The situation continued that activists were subjected to threat and violence during working hours. For example, someone would say to them day by day, gWatch out. There comes a scoop to hit you!h Bringing the problem to the Human Rights Protection Committee, activists finally did away with the collective bullying against them in the workplace. Even at present, however, every time they distribute the workplace newspaper in front of the factory, many of their superiors and pro-company union leaders would surround them to impede the distribution, or managers would give them harsh oral warning.
12) The Labor Standards Inspection Office was set up in Toyota City in 1989. Behind this achievement, there was frequent occurrence of labor accidents in Toyota area, and unpaid work and other cases that clearly went contrary to law continuously taking place. Also, there were accumulated efforts of workers from each workplace to denounce and solve the problem.
(3) Lessons of the Struggle

From the above struggle, Toyota workers have drawn the following lessons.

First, being a minority, workers can get their demands realized as long as they present the demands in public and maintain perseverance in the struggle. Of course, though workers continue to present their demands for a long time, many of them are still difficult to realize due to the actual power relationship. The company's side has made almost no concession about such issues as substantial wage hike, reduction in working hours, improvement of the intense labor, relief system and transfer of the workers, forced support for a specific political party and participation in the election campaign by the whole company. However, the achievements obtained in the struggle show well that even under the Toyota production system how many demands workers can realize, if only they stand on the position to wage the struggle.

Second, the company has been violating workers' proper rights and working conditions, which the Labor Standards Law clearly provides. The Toyota production system constitutionally infringes workers' fundamental rights. While, originally the trade union is the one who should take the initiatives in achieving the workers' demands. In Toyota also, if any proper trade union had existed, it should have tackled problems in achieving much of the above improvement that activists have actually accomplished, not by the trade union. This means in turn that how far removed Toyota Union is from what a trade union should be. In Toyota-related companies, when a problem occurs, trade unions would not try to solve it in the workers' interests, even though they would cooperate with the company in hiding the fact. In fact, often relating to unpaid work and labor accidents, the problem comes to surface by anonymous complaint appealed to activists. Workers have no trust in their trade union.

Third, Toyota's system of controlling workers is not so stable as it seems. It is true that in the union officers' election, activist candidates would obtain only 5 to 7 percent of the total votes and apparently pro-company union leaders would be elected by a large margin. However, we cannot take the figure at face value. Apart from what I have already mentioned about the undemocratic election system, even the figures of election results officially given by the Election Administration Committee arouse suspicion. The actual situation of workplaces goes far beyond such superficial figures, and it now gives a sign of unstableness in the labor-management relationship. The recent trend shows dissatisfaction toward the company and trade union is growing among group leaders, section chiefs and others in managerial posts in charge of the actual working field. As the contradictions arising in the workplace are heavily falling especially upon these managerial layers, these managerial workers now come publicly to express discontent and criticize the company's or trade union's proposals, supporting and sympathizing the activists' opinions in the workplace rally.

2. Workers' Struggle and Cooperation Becoming Widespread

The lean production system, invented in the auto industry, was later applied widely in other industries such as manufacturing industry. Its influence has now extended to other scenes of society, beyond industries. The lean production system has, wherever it goes, deprived workers of repose, then awakened their anger and resistance. Struggle against the lean production system in each place has now gradually merged into one flow, forming a network of united struggles.

First, the network has promoted exchange between workers in the auto industry, the main store of the lean production system. In this respect, we should take notice of the gExchange Meeting of Auto Industry Workers and Related Local Organizations.h They have held this meeting every year since 1995. Workers of auto industry got together with trade unions and democratic organizations fighting in each region and local communities to exchange and study each other's experiences of struggles. They had already promoted exchange at limited individual level, as is the case of Mazda workers learning from the Toyota General Action to launch Mazda General Action, but the inauguration of such Exchange Meetingh will further extend the links of exchange of experiences, thus strengthening the united struggle.

Secondly, a gStudy Circle on Contemporary Labor Burdensh set up in 1990 has tried in studying the labor burdens imposed upon by the just-in-time system (JIT) waging the struggle against this system in workplaces. The lean production system represented by JIT rapidly spread in Japan from the second half of 1970's. It started in the auto industry, followed by the electric machinery, precision machinery, industry machinery, food industry and all other manufacturing industries. It now covers the fields of physical distribution, retailing and services. The first step they take in applying JIT to workplaces of these industries is to make workers work standing, by forcibly taking chairs away. There were cases that not only site workers but also clerical workers were forced to work on foot. This forced labor caused various kinds of health disorder. On this issue, the gStudy Circleh has offered opportunities for workers to learn cases of each workplace all over the country where JIT was introduced, and to exchange the experiences of struggles. By the cooperation of specialists on labor medical science, it has not only continued with case study, but actually obtained achievements; it has succeeded in making work on foot abolish in some workplaces.

Thirdly, as gdeath from overwork,h or karoshi, became a social problem since around the end of 1980f‚“, the struggle started to get authorities to recognize it as labor accident. They have carried forward this struggle deeply linked with the struggle against the lean production system. In Japan, not only in actual production sites but also in every type of industry including transportation, finance, service, public service and education, they are imposing Toyota-style labor upon workers. Consequently, due to the stress caused by long working hours, intensive labor and excessive quota, sudden death from overwork has been seen among the workers of all job types and all ages. Nevertheless, the labor administration has granted very few victims labor accident compensation, because it is reluctant in giving recognition of labor accident, and the companies who are responsible for workers' death, and trade unions are not cooperative. This is why in 1998 gkaroshi 110 (emergency call)h was set up under the initiatives of lawyers and doctors all over the country. They respond to the consultation by the victims. Also, bereaved families of workers who had died of overwork, lawyers, doctors and activists in workplaces have joined to ask thoroughly into responsibility of the companies and trade unions, trying to win recognition of labor accidents from the authority. Such activities have had a great impact on society and have achieved to ease extremely strict standards in recognizing labor accidents to some extent.

Fourth and lastly, the National Confederation of Trade Unions (Zenroren) and the Japanese Communist Party have carried on the movement for reduction in working hours and regulation on the intensive labor. Along with this, they have also promoted the movement, which is particularly important, calling for a drastic revision of the Labor Standards Law. The existing Labor Standards Law has serious weak points in connection with imposing regulations on the lean-production-system work style, because it gives no upper limits to overtime work, and has no stipulation on controlling intensive work. Since in Japan trade unions do not impose sufficient regulations on such work style, juridical regulation has special importance. However, the Japanese government and financial circles run completely counter to responding to this necessity, intending to get the Toyota-type of work system further established. Now with the aim of abolishing all the existing regulations that hinder the Toyota-type of work being firmly established, they are pushing ahead with policies of increasing the coverage of occupation categories, where they are trying to expand the application for discretionary or flextime work system and the fields of dispatching worker system. The government's attempts to totally and adversely revise the Labor Standards Law and other labor laws have met opposition from a great majority of workers and trade unions, including Rengo (Japanese Trade Union Confederation) affiliates.

In this way, Japanese workers, their families and residents are now fighting against the lean production system in various fields and have won achievements. What is important is that each struggle, while individually achieving good results, is now combining each other. A network of exchange and cooperation is spreading. This trend is not something typical only to Japan. The advancement of the lean production system on an international scale has produced struggle everywhere in the world, thus the exchange and cooperation between struggles in different parts of the world are also becoming widespread.

Publication of gWages of Auto Industry,hedited by Aichi Labor Institute

In February 1998, Aichi Labor Institute , which maintains amiable relations with the Japan Research Institute of Labor Movement (Rodo-Soken) published a booklet under the title, gWages@of Auto@Industry.h The booklet gives the results of the research and analysis on@the wages paid to workers in Japan's main auto manufactures. It is a fruit@of four years' collective work of researchers and workers, members of the@Institutes' Study Group on the Policies for Workplaces in the Auto Industry.

This booklet sheds lights on the new type of mechanism of exploitation@under the lean production system, which represents a low-cost structure@based on the strengthened principle that wages should be paid according to@workers' ability and achievements. This mechanism provides the basis for@enormous profits gained by Japan's four leading auto manufactures,@namely, Toyota, Nissan, Mitsubishi, and Honda, and by the Toyota Group's@five main companies. B5-sized, 132 pages, available only in Japanese.

Publication of gWorkers' Struggle Throughout the World - 1997h
Report on the Research concerning the World's Labor Movement,
Vol.4,@written by the International Labor Section, the Japan Research
Institute of@Labor Movement

The Japan Research Institute of Labor Movement (Rodo-Soken) works in@close cooperation with the National Confederation of Trade Unions (Zenroren), Japan's militant trade unions' national center. In March 1998,@Zenroren published a report under the above title. The report reflects the result of the research conducted by Rodo-Soken's International@Labor Section during 1997. This 1997 report takes up the struggle of@workers in chief 53 countries. It gives special attention and gives comprehensive references to workers' struggle in South Korea, Vietnam, Australia, the United States, Mexico, Great Britain, Germany and France.B5-sized, 127 pages, available only in Japanese.