Japanese counsel general has different view of labor unions

Tsutomu Nakagawa was clear in his concern and compassion for the economic situation in the Mahoning Valley.

Nakagawa is the counsel general for Japan and was in Youngstown for a visit Friday. He’s a trade ambassador of sorts, and he has two responsibilities in his job: Ohio and Michigan.

They are states with two of the highest concentration of Japanese citizens working in America in Japan-owned companies.

Equally clear in his broken English was that despite the success of Japanese business in the U.S., the reality of Japan business leaders locating jobs here in Northeast Ohio is very remote due to one issue – organized labor.

He wasn’t braggadocious in touting their style vs. ours.

He was more resigned to the reality of our style.

The weight of organized labor has been the quiet hum about the General Motors Lordstown Assembly Plant closure announcement since it came out last Thanksgiving. The hum was deflected other ways, too: Less car sales, saturated market, etc. But the union impact has always been whispered.

Not all have been so quiet.

Nakagawa’s words took me back to a stunning conversation I had with a business leader after the Lordstown announcement, but before its closure.

It was inside a successful company with an ambitious future.

Knowing our future was set to face the loss of the last 2,000 jobs tied to car manufacturing, I expressed concern with the impact and hope that it gets reversed.

His words: Let it go.

He went on to describe the historic labor struggles in the region and the weight that it is for new expansion. The hum out of Detroit and GM of late seems to support the notion of the weight.

And Friday in our newsroom, our Japanese guest was essentially echoing the same.

It’s a tough pill to swallow, no doubt.

Organized labor is such a part of our legacy – like wedding soup and football. But that it’s a legacy does not mean it is universally beloved. It just is, for some.

Nakagawa said Japan’s preference for U.S. production expansion is in the South. Heck, even here in Ohio, Japan’s preference seems south. Most of the Japanese-owned companies rest in a triangle between Columbus, Cincinnati and Dayton.

Tim O’Hara, Lordstown’s United Auto Workers Local 1112 union No. 2 boss, said in a December meeting at The Vindicator that when you’re an autoworker, you’re always expecting to lose your job.

I’m not sure that’s the same in Nakagawa’s world.

Per a CNBC story, from 2011 to 2018, direct employment at Japanese automakers operating in the U.S. grew by nearly 29 percent, compared with the overall growth rate of 8 percent across all U.S. manufacturing jobs.

Japan automakers – Honda, Mazda, Mitsubishi, Nissan, Subaru and Toyota – have 24 manufacturing plants, 45 research and development design facilities, and 39 distribution centers across 28 states.

Japanese manufacturers today build more than a third of the vehicles made in the U.S., according to the data. In 2018, JAMA manufacturers built 3.7 million vehicles and 4.4 million engines. More than 420,000 cars and trucks built by Japanese companies were exported from the U.S. that year.

Yet here in Northeast Ohio, we languish.

Tim emailed us an update this week – painful words from a great guy:

“Over 800 GM Local 1112 members have transferred to other locations. Over 400 others have declined to involuntarily transfer and have cuts ties with the company.

If you include our members from Leadec, Magna and Jamestown, that’s another 500 people who have no option to transfer with their job. Currently, we have under 500 active UAW-GM employees remaining and a few hundred on sick leave status.

There are only about 17 Local 1112 members remaining in the entire complex. 12,000 down to 17.”

It’s a confounding dilemma to digest for a community and its leadership.

From one expert: The best manufacturers won’t come here due to our legacy.

From another: Let go of our legacy.

And from a guy amid that legacy: It’s gone.

Todd Franko is editor of The Vindicator. He likes -mails about stories and our newspaper. Email him at tfranko@vindy.com. Tweet him, too, at @tfranko.