TAKANO,Fusataro, Great Railway Strike in Japan: Labor Report from 19th Century Japan(15)

Labor Report from Meiji Japan (15)

  Great Railway Strike in Japan

TAKANO, Fusataro.

      Hongo. Tokyo, Japan, March 24.

Late on the night of February 24, last, a telegraphic dispatch announced a strike of about seventy engineers and firemen of Fukushima division on the main line of the Japan Railway Company, the foremost private railway concern in this country.
That was the first public intimation of the then-coming greatest railroad strike ever witnessed in this country. The following morning found the strike assuming an alarming proportion, for all engineers and firemen, about 350 in number, belonging to seven important divisions on the system, refused to go on their regular run. A complete tie-up of the entire main system to the north of Utsunomiya, viz., 391 miles out of 456 miles of the main line, thus resulted.
For the whole day of the 25th, this state prevailed with great inconvenience to the traveling public and shippers.
Although the strike partially ended on the afternoon of the 26th, for the succeeding two days the passenger traffic was in a crippled condition, no train running on schedule time, and as to the freight traffic, it was blocked for several days, and it took two weeks more to resume its normal condition.
While the strike came as a sudden surprise to the general public, the company was sufficiently warned of the approaching strike, and if it had chosen to avert the calamity, it had ample time to do so.
Anonymous letters setting forth the demand of employes, were sent to the company several times since last December. No desired remedy being forthcoming in response to these pleadings, dissatisfied employes set about to organize an association to effect their demands.
This association was perfected on February 6, with every engineer and fireman of the company enrolled.
Shortly after the association was formed, an ultimatum, under covert name, was addressed to the directors of the company, setting February 25th as the day of proposed strike, should the company fail to concede their demands which consisted of:
First, that engineers and firemen should be given same official status as conductors and station-masters; and, secondly, that wages of engineers and firemen should be increased so as to equal the rate of higher wages granted to other classes of employes during the last fall.
It is claimed in the ultimatum that by the prevailing system, engineers and firemen are ranked a grade lower than conductors and station-masters. With this difference of official status, treatment accorded to those two classes of employes, as well as travelling expenses and semi-annual bonus allowed, considerably differs. While there is a very little difference of wages paid to conductors and engineers (the former receiving a monthly salary ranging from 15 to 55 yen, the latter a daily wage of from 90 sen to y.1.30)* the official status gives the conductors seniority[sic] over engineers. Moreover, in respect with semi-annual bonus the same official status enables conductors and station-masters to be allowed just double of what engineers and firemen are allowed, and in case of travelling expenses, engineers are allowed 20 per cent. less than conductors and station-masters.
This discriminate ranking, the ultimatum argues, is not commensurate with the great responsibility assumed by engineers and the hard and long training required to acquire the profession, and so demands equality of ranks between the two classes of employes.
As to the second demand, the ultimatum fully sets forth the facts which made it necessary to make this demand. According to the statement made in the ultimatum, it was customary practice with the company to raise the wages of its employes twice during a year. Each of these raises amounts to 5 sen to those who are receiving 90 sen or less of daily wages, 10 sen to those who are receiving over 90 sen per day, y. 2.50 to those receiving a monthly salary of y. 25 or less, and y. 5 to those receiving over y. 25 per month.
This arrangement itself works discriminately against engineers and firemen, since it is clear that while a station-master, who is receiving 10 or 12 yen per month, will receive under the arrangement, a raise of y. 2.50, an engineer who gets 90 sen per day will receive a raise of only y. 1.50. However, to this arrangement the ultimatum does not object, but it strongly condemns a new departure made from this arrangement last fall when, owing to the abnormal rise of prices of life's necessaries, the company advanced wages of its employes who are paid by monthly stipend in transportation department by 10 or 15 yen each. This rate was not granted to engineers and firemen, they being raised at the same rate as prevailed in the former raises, viz., 5 and 10 sen per diem. It is against this discriminate raise, the ultimatum vigorously protests and demands advance of their wages so as to be equal to the rate of raise prevailing in the other department.
These rightful demands, accompanied with a threat of strike, caused the company's officials to move toward the wrong direction.
Beginning at the northern end of the system, it has spotted out the leaders of the dissatisfied employes, discharging them one by one, division after division, down to Sendai. When the fact leaked out and was made known on the 24th of February to the leaders of Fukushima division that they were to be discharged on the following day they at once revolted, and all engineers and firemen belonging to the division struck.
The signal thus being given, the engineers and firemen of other divisions who had pledged their co-operation, simultaneously quit their posts, thereby inaugurating the first and great railway strike in this country.
It was claimed by the strikers that those engineers and firemen belonging to Uyeno, where the company's headquarters is located, failed to strike together with others, owing to unreasonable delay of a telegraphic communication sent by the Fukushima leaders.
The outbreak was a complete surprise to the company's officials. Representatives of the company were dispatched to the scene of the strike to pacify the strikers. After hard pleading and solemn pledging on their part they succeeded in gaining the consent of the strikers to return to their posts pending the decision of the proposed conference to be opened between a committee of the strikers and the directors of the company. With this, a part of the strikers returned, the remainder still refusing to return.
Conference was opened on the 28th in the headquarters building at Uyeno, in this city, and the demands of the strikers were submitted.
While this conference was going on, engineers and firemen belonging to two branch lines of the company, Takasaki and Mito, and who failed to go out simultaneously with the engineers and firemen on the main line, struck, completely blockading traffic on those branch lines. After one day's strike, they, too, were induced to send their representatives to the conference. For the next five days, conference went slowly on and during which time declarations were repeatedly made by strikers to resume their fight should the company fail to come to their terms.
On the morning of the 6th inst., it was finally given out that the conference came to an understanding. As to the result of the conference, both sides kept it secret. However, sufficient hints were dropped to justify the statement that all the demands of the strikers were conceded, and this is further evidenced by the joyful countenances of the delegates. Thus the great strike ended in a complete and crowning victory for the workers.
Incidental to this strike, there was manifested a strong public opinion against the tyranny of the company. Never before in the industrial annals of this country has such a strong public indignation been expressed against a semi-public institution as in this particular occasion. Blame for the strike was rightly placed on the directors of the company, who were handled without gloves by the press of the city. They charged the directors as having utterly neglected their duty toward the public, and condemned them as unworthy of the position they hold. Some papers went so far as to advise passengers and shippers to bring law suits for damages against the company.
It should be noted in this connection that this condemnation of directors by the press bore fruit shortly after. Four days after the strike commenced the chief of the locomotive department of the company resigned his position, and two days after the conference closed the president and vice-president of the company tendered their resignations.
It is, indeed, gratifyng for the writer to record here a fact, that in this country capital still lacks much of the power we have been accustomed to witness in the western countries.
Another fact that is worthy of special mention, is the far-reaching effect of the strike. While the strike was not fully ended, a rumor had it to say that engineers and firemen in the government railway service are likely to go on a strike, as they are dissatisfied with the wages paid to them. Whether this rumor had real foundation or not it cannot be ascertained; but it is certain that this rumor was instrumental in a raise of 10 sen on daily wages ordered a few days ago by the government railway bureau. So the employes of the government railway service have profited by the stand made by the employes of the Japan Railway Co., thus unmistakably showing the truth of codependency of the interest of labor.

* 100 sen makes 1 yen, which equals to 50 American cents.

American Federationist, V, No.3(May,1998), 48-50.

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Edited by NIMURA, Kazuo @http://oisr.org/nk/