Japanese workers strike over department store sale

On Thursday, about 900 union workers from the Tokyo Seibu store staged a strike.

Japanese workers strike over department store sale
People supporting the strike by a workers union of Sogo & Seibu hold banners in front of the company's flagship Seibu Ikebukuro store in Tokyo, Japan August 31, 2023, in this photo taken by Kyodo. The slogan on the banner in the centre reads, 'Sogo & Seibu, strike solidarity'. Mandatory credit Kyodo/via REUTERS

The backstory: In Japan, labor action is seen as pretty unusual, unlike in other countries (like the US and the UK). Last year, there were only 33 recorded strikes in the whole country – the world’s third-largest economy. Instead, it’s pretty normal for unions and employers to negotiate over wages and work conditions in a more mutual way.

At the moment, Japan’s labor market is pretty tight, and workers do have some leverage. This past March, workers at major companies won wage increases (the biggest in 30 years) at the annual “shunto” spring wage negotiations between companies and unions. At the same time, though, inflation has gotten pretty high in Japan, so those wage increases aren’t necessarily as meaningful as they may seem.

More recently: US investment firm Fortress Investment Group decided to buy out Sogo & Seibu, a big Japanese department store chain. Its location  in Tokyo’s Ikebukuro district sees around 70 million visitors a year to its 14-floor building, making it the flagship store. But current owner Seven & i Holdings is ready to hand over the 10-store chain because it hasn’t really turned a profit in five years.

Seibu’s workers aren’t too happy about the pending deal. They want certain job stability guarantees, and they’re upset about reported plans for Yodobashi Holdings, a discount electronics vendor, to take over around half of the store. Workers think this could hurt the chain’s reputation, leading to job cuts. The Seibu deal was actually postponed from last November because of these issues.

The development: On Thursday, about 900 union workers from the Tokyo Seibu store staged a strike. This is the first strike in the store’s history. It’s also the first department store strike in Japan since 1962. The strike has only been called for one day so far, closing the store for the day as striking workers stood outside holding signs and handing out info leaflets. They also got support from other retail stores’ unions.

On live national TV, Seven & i president Ryuichi Isaka bowed and apologized to people for "for causing troubles to many customers and stakeholders.” Strikers also apologized to TV cameras for causing public inconvenience. Even with this labor action, though, the deal is set to close on Friday. But Seibu will be having more talks with the union. The sale price is set at 220 billion yen (US$1.5 billion) but won’t be final until the whole thing goes through.

Key comments:

"I regret that we could not change the outcome, but it's also a fact that our business is struggling," union leader Yasuhiro Teraoka told reporters. "Maybe it was our failure not to have raised our voices until now ... but I believe that having so many people see and hear what we had to say made it a significant event."

“We deeply apologize to all stakeholders, including customers, local people, business partners and employees, for the worries and inconvenience caused by the strike conducted by the Sogo & Seibu Labor Union today. Sogo & Seibu will continue collective bargaining and discussions with the Sogo & Seibu Labor Union, and the Company will also continue to provide support and cooperate to an appropriate extent on such discussions,” Seven & i Holdings said in a statement.

Fortress said that it plans to "maintain Sogo & Seibu's workforce to the extent possible."