I know that these days people's eyes are fixed on the catastrophic earthquake that hit Japan, but today instead of focusing on the problems facing Japan, I would like to talk about the positive things that are coming out of Japan to cure spinal cord injury (SCI).
Last year there were announcements of some interesting breakthroughs on the research front. First there was a report from Nara Institute of Science and Technology showing success in animal models of SCI using neural stem cells. Also a very promising report from Keio University and their use of iPS cells that got monkeys walking.
Recently I have been reading some information about Dr. Dezawa Mari at Tohoku University (which is in the area hit by the earthquake) and her work reprogramming neurons from bone marrow cells which could possibly be used to treat lower spinal cord injuries. And just up the road from me at Osaka Medical University, I hear noises about possible clinical trials using OE cells (OEG cells) to cure spinal cord injury.
But today, these are not the things that I want to focus on even though they are very relevant to curing SCI.
I think that sometimes people in the SCI community, including myself, are a little bit skeptical about research. We know that we need research to continue, but research without translational work (getting the science to people with SCI through clinical trials) is empty.
I work with many different people in the SCI community and we often talk about this problem with the translational work and how to solve it. We also talk about many different world organizations who raise a lot of money telling people that they want to cure SCI, but we don't see any progress towards clinical trials from these groups. Again, how do we regular SCI people get our message across to these groups.
The other day I received an email from one of my colleagues in the fight for a cure, and I think that since he knows my union activities wrote,
"We have nothing to bargain with here, we cannot withhold our scis as labour can be withheld."
This got me thinking about the characters that you see at the left. In romanized Japanese it is pronounced seisan kanri which translated into English means production control and it's how Japanese trade unions dealt with a very terrible situation at war's end.
See, Japan has a history of pulling itself out of terrible circumstances. I'm sure Japan will recover from this earthquake as it has from others. The damage done in this earthquake is being compared to the damage caused by World War II, of course on a smaller scale, and one of the things that pulled Japan out of the horror at the end of the war were trade unions.
Unions that were once crushed under the weight of a militaristic Japanese government prior to the war, came out of nowhere once this regime was defeated and started organizing. But they faced the very problem my friend's email stated. How do you go on strike when the factory or workplace is not even open because in many industries there was a strike by capital which refused to even open up workplaces? Or when the employer uses threats of closure to ward off strikes in a situation where not many people even had a job? See, they didn't really have anything to bargain with either.
In these situations Japanese workers used a new kind of strike called Seisan Kanri or production control. They didn't simply occupy their factories like the sitdowners did in America ten years before, they kicked out the managers and ran it themselves. Their bargaining power came from this, "Do you want your factory and the profits back? Then meet our demands."
And that's what about 200,000 Japanese workers did between December 1945 and autumn 1946 when it was outlawed by the supreme court (undoubtedly because it worked so well). When this tactic was successful the workers didn't just go back to the way things were. Eighty percent of the collective agreements won in these struggles (and in more traditional strikes) included clauses granting equal participation from labour on management councils and union veto rights over hiring and firing.
Now, we in the SCI community need to figure out how to apply this very important lesson in our struggle. How we can move from the sidelines of the battle for a cure into the mainstream organizations to make sure they are working for the cure. Not go cap in hand, but go in with more voices and more strength. To control the 'production' of the cure.
If workers in a war ravaged country with memories of jail for union activity fresh in their minds could do this, then we can, too. This is another contribution from Japan in winning a cure for spinal cord injury.
You can find more information about Seisan Kanri here.