Kuala Lumpur, 1977. The rain came down in torrents. The control tower instructed pilots to circle the airport pending better weather. The pilots had the option to divert to a nearby airport where things were quieter. Japan Airlines (JAL) was pushing its employees to cut costs, and the pilot of JAL’s DC8-60 decided not to divert and to circle until the rain let up.
But the rain did not yield. The DC8-60 ran low on fuel and was forced to land come what may. Eight of the 10 crew and 26 of 29 passengers perished in the ensuing crash. This tragedy would inspire one JAL employee, Taeko Uchida, to get serious about union activism in a way that would decades later find her leading a legal and labor battle against Japan’s flagship carrier.
New Year’s Eve 2010. Most people were rushing around preparing for the new year. That evening, JAL, with its iconic crane trademark, sent pink slips to 165 employees — 81 pilots and 84 crew members. These women and men, who had worked for years or decades with pride and passion to keep the skies safe for JAL passengers, found themselves greeting the new year out of a job.
Struggling under a debt of ¥2.3 trillion, JAL had filed for bankruptcy on Jan. 19, 2010. The courts quickly approved protection from creditors under Japan’s Corporate Reorganization Act. JAL pushed through a short-term reconstruction plan that quickly turned the carrier around. The airline turned ¥188.4 billion in operating profit in the 2010 fiscal year, triple the target under the reconstruction scheme. JAL relisted on the stock market in 2012 and the company was back off the ground.
The quick turnaround was praised to the skies (mainly by management types) as a shining example of how to restructure by downsizing and withdrawing from unprofitable ventures. Such voices naturally tend to approve of mass layoffs. But in Japan, downsizing dismissals must meet four criteria to be legal: they must be necessary, those to be dismissed must have been chosen by legitimate means, efforts must have been made to avoid dismissal, and sufficient explanations must have been offered to the workers themselves. I believe that none of these conditions were met, least of all the necessity criterion: After firing 165 employees in 2010, the company hired 940 new crew members in 2012.
How were the 165 chosen? Of the 84 crew members fired, 71 belonged to the JAL Cabin Crew Union (CCU), one of seven labor unions in the airline. This was a minority union whose policy was less “cooperative” than the larger unions. CCU believes the union was targeted.
Just 19 days after the pink slips went out, on Jan. 19, 2011, the fired pilots and crew sued to overturn the dismissal. Tokyo District Court in March 2012 and the Tokyo High Court in June 2014 both upheld the dismissals, a complete defeat for the plaintiffs. They appealed to the Supreme Court and currently await the final verdict, hoping against hope for a turnaround victory.
This mass layoff filled me with indignant anger. JAL’s unilateral upending of the lives of its workers in this manner seems unacceptable to me. If the court rules in favor of an employer in a dismissal case, at the very least the judge’s verdict should gel with the logic of jurisprudence. It is clear reading the verdict, however, that the decision was made before the case had started. The wording lacks any legal logic and merely falls into line with the assertions of JAL (and the national government).
This verdict calls into question the credibility of our justice system. The plaintiffs themselves have been working hard, touring the country and drumming up support for their fight to overturn the dismissals. I recently spoke with Takeo Uchida, the former president of CCU and the current lead plaintiff. I asked her what it is like to take on such a large company.
You lost in both the district and the high court?
Yes. It seems that crew who have worked so hard for so many years can be just discarded in a cavalier manner. We clearly demonstrated the illegitimacy of these dismissals yet the judges failed to look at the case with the same clarity. The judges have made a mockery of the four conditions that must be met for layoffs. It’s really a shame. I worry that ordinary citizens will lose their faith in the legitimacy of the courts.
So now you await the Supreme Court’s verdict?
Yes, but we don’t know when the ruling will be passed down. The first two judicial defeats have taken their toll on many of our fellow plaintiffs.
This whole case has upset their lives, families and health. Some are suffering with mental stress.
Fighting a court battle is tough, but it will all be worth it if the Supreme Court finds in our favor.
Court battles cost a great deal in money, not to mention physical and emotional energy. This must be particularly true when facing off against such a corporate giant as JAL.
But whatever happens I regret nothing. We have lost in court, but we did manage to get the International Labour Organization to issue two separate advisories against the firings.
The Transport Workers’ Federation has supported us strongly, and this has encouraged us greatly. In Japan, labor unions and nongovernment organizations across the country have also supported us in our struggle. I cannot describe in words how much this support and solidarity has meant to us.
You yourself have taken a leading role and shown such courage. What drives you?
No matter how big the company is, what’s wrong is wrong. We must continue to state this not just for ourselves but for our co-workers, and for the sake of safe air travel. In a mark of respect for the powerful support we have received from abroad and in Japan, we must continue to fight. It was 1974 when I began working international flights. What really pushed me into beginning union activities in earnest was the death of my colleagues in the 1977 Kuala Lumpur crash. My friend was on that flight.
That was a terrible crash.
I believe the company’s priority on cost-cutting caused the Kuala Lumpur accident. So I became very passionate about union activities. I felt that in order to change company priorities, we workers had to raise our voices.
So the crash in 1977 led you eventually to your current fight?
Yes. The airline has targeted workers who had dedicated decades of their lives to JAL, workers who are now elderly. Ignoring such long dedication and service, the airline thinks only of cutting labor costs and eliminating our labor union. Nothing has changed since 1977. That’s all the more reason why we must keep fighting.
The company is simply discarding employees who have worked hard to keep the skies safe. JAL used the excuse of bankruptcy to bust the union, yet they turned earnings around in no time and are now pumping out huge profits. The courts should understand this.
The JAL court case involves more than just the pilots and crew concerned. whatever the outcome, it will affect all workers. It is important that we all demand the courts look clearly at the facts. If the Supreme Court upholds the firing of these 165, it will mean the end of any legal restraint to layoffs. Our society should not allow employers to engage in mass layoffs to get rid of expensive older workers and a troublesome labor union.
See the plaintiffs’ English-language website at gkd146hp2.wix.com/jalgkd165. Hifumi Okunuki teaches at Sagami Women’s University and serves as executive president of Tozen Union (Zenkoku Ippan Tokyo General Union). She can be reached at email@example.com. On the fourth Thursday of each month, Hifumi looks at cases in Japan’s legal history to illustrate important principles in labor law.