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Online labor group aims to unionize young teachers amid falling membership across Japan

A conversation between the "Kanto Kyoshokuin Net Rodo Kumiai" and one of its members is seen on a screenshot of the free messaging app Line provided by the teachers' union. (Image partially modified)

TOKYO -- Despite a national decline in teachers' union membership rates, an online labor union for education sector staff in the east Japan Kanto region is attracting attention for its initiative offering consultation on workplace issues via free messaging app Line.

"Kanto Kyoshokuin Net Rodo Kumiai" (Kanto school staff online labor union) was established in July 2019 and currently has 30 members. It aims to boost its membership by solely focusing on labor issues and keeping enrollment fees down, in part of a strategic plan to target young teachers who, as a demographic, are increasingly losing interest in unions.

"Although we may be of limited influence, we established this union in a bid to improve teachers' working environment," the union says on its official website. Specifically, it offers consultations via Line on issues including working hours, evaluations and pay. If necessary, it can step in to demand principals and human resources committees improve workers' situations.

As there is no need for a meeting place, teachers who join the union incur fees of just 500 yen a month, whereas educators associated with the Japan Teachers' Union (JTU), the country's largest teachers' union apparently pay at least 1,000 yen a month, although the JTU fees are not officially disclosed. One reason people are spreading information about the new union on Twitter and other online platforms is its inexpensive fees.

The head of the online union is a former elementary school teacher who was ostracized in their workplace after demanding improvements in working conditions. With isolation being one of the reasons the union's head chose to quit teaching, they urged, "I want teachers to get in touch with us before they become isolated. We want to be of help to as many teachers as possible."

The public relations department of the JTU said they "are not in a position to agree with or criticize" the new union, due to it being a separate organization.

According to the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology, 94.3% of teachers and school staff were signed up with some kind of union in the 1958 academic year. However, membership rates have declined annually, falling to 33.3% in the 2018 school year.

Furthermore, 86.3% of all faculty members in Japan were signed up to the JTU in the 1958 school year, but since its split during the 1989 academic year its membership rate has declined. In the 2018 school year, just 22.6% of school staff were on its books. Additionally, the proportion of newly hired teachers among its ranks is especially low.

For the JTU, the decline in membership has had an impact not only on its activities to improve teachers' working environment, but also on its educational research. There were 907 reports presented at the union's annual National Conference on Educational Research in the 2001 school year, but this had fallen to 624 by the 2018 academic year.

The JTU also used to fiercely oppose government education policy. For example, when Japan's national achievement exams changed from a lottery system selecting some students, to a method requiring participation from all students in 1961, the JTU argued that the changes "could incite excessive competition and the establishment of an educational hierarchy."

Although it reached a settlement with the former education ministry in 1995, some members of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party are still critical of the JTU.

(Japanese original by Takuya Izawa, City News Department)

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