Japanese base workers protest pay-cut plan
Union members picket outside U.S. bases, threaten more work stoppages
By HANA KUSUMOTO AND CHIYOMI SUMIDA | STARS AND STRIPES Published: November 23, 2007
Wednesday’s half-day strike by Japanese base workers to protest their government’s plan to cut their salaries involved a little shoving and yelling at base gates, but mostly remained calm.
The strike, called by Zenchuro — or the Japan Garrison Forces Labor Union — lasted four hours and began at the start of the workday of each worker.
At most bases, union members picketed outside the gates, urging Japanese workers to join the strike and sometimes blocking them from reporting to work.
U.S. personnel and contractors were able to enter the bases. Mission-essential Japanese workers, such as guards and firefighters, worked as usual on Wednesday.
“All critical operations proceeded as normal” on U.S. military installations, said Air Force Col. Eric Schnaible, a U.S. Forces Japan spokesman at Yokota Air Base.
At Yokosuka Naval Base, union members checked IDs of those walking toward the base. Some workers turned around and walked away, after being told by union members that they shouldn’t enter the base.
One woman tried to break through the picket line by punching and yelling at protesters, but she was blocked. She eventually climbed over a guardrail and walked on the roadway, going around the picket line and walking through the gate.
At Kadena Air Base, Okinawa, union members made attempts to stop cars that bore Japanese license plates from entering the gate, but no vehicles were seen making U-turns. Cars traveling the highway occasionally tooted their horns in support of the strike.
From time to time, demonstrators chanted slogans, criticizing the government’s plan to cut workers’ salaries.
During one instance, protesters turned on their heels toward the north (in the direction of Tokyo) when a union leader told them through a loud speaker: “This protest is not toward the military but toward (the Japanese) Ministry of Defense.”
“I believe most workers went along with our thoughts,” union secretary-general Tsuneo Teruya said. “I believe there was only (a) small number of workers who were working.”
Teruya said more than 5,000 union members took part in picket lines at 90 base gates nationwide, but he did not have the total number of workers who participated in the strike.
Last month, the Ministry of Defense proposed to abolish Japanese workers’ allowances, which make up about 10 percent of monthly paychecks. The allowances are pay incentives built into each worker’s salary. The extra pay is meant to compensate individuals for working in a different cultural environment and to reward people for using English on the job.
The decision to abolish allowances — an $88.8 million annual cost — came amid the streamlining of government spending, ministry officials said.
Japan employs the workers and provides the work force to the U.S. military as part of an agreement between Japan and the United States. Under the bilateral accord, such a change must be agreed to by the United States.
Many on strike expressed their concerns over potential cuts of a big chunk of their paychecks at once.
“Our lives are on the line,” said a 32-year-old man from Yokosuka’s Ship Repair Facility, who asked not to be identified.
“I need to protect my life,” added a 50-year-old Navy Exchange employee, who also declined to give his name. “We are not asking for an increase but to protect what we have now.”
Many also contested the ministry’s assertion that salaries of base workers exceed those of government workers.
“It is a dirty trick the ministry uses,” said Morikatsu Inamine, chairman of the union’s Air Force branch on Okinawa. “They presented erroneous information to major media outlets to make it look as if the salaries of base workers were higher than those of government workers.”
The labor union argued that base worker salaries were, in fact, 20 percent lower than those of Japanese civil service employees.
“I can prove with my pay slips that our pays are not high as they say,” said a 35-year-old Camp Kinser employee, who declined to give her name.
“The government high-handedly decided to cut our paychecks,” said a 42-year-old housing maintenance crew worker on Kadena. “We should never yield to their demand, because once we give in, I know more and more cuts are coming in future.”
Ministry of Defense officials declined to comment on the strike.
The Japanese government and union are scheduled to resume negotiations on Tuesday, Teruya said. But if no progress is made, the union plans an eight-hour strike Nov. 30 and to conduct a third walkout in mid-December, he said.
“We hope the Japanese government will consider the issue seriously and show their stance as we are prepared to strike again,” Teruya said. He said they are willing to talk with the government at any time.
The last nationwide strike was conducted 16 years ago, according to Zenchuro.
As of September, 25,530 Japanese were employed at 55 U.S. military installations throughout the country.
“We fully support our valued Japanese employees’ peaceful exercise of their legal rights,” Schnaible said.
Stars and Stripes reporter Vince Little contributed to this story.
Japanese employees of U.S. military bases line the side of Highway 58 in front of Kadena Air Base's Gate 1 on Wednesday. The strikers turned north toward Tokyo with their backs to Kadena to show that they weren't against the U.S. military, but were protesting the Japanese defense ministry, according to some strike partcipants.
CINDY FISHER / S&S