Never mind all that “buy American” and “Asian cars are the enemy” rhetoric. The United Auto Workers (UAW) would love to get their hands on the transplants’ southern redoubts. With their numbers dwindling due to Detroit’s plant closures and buyouts, the UAW realizes they have to go trolling in the transplants’ ponds to stay alive. Last Saturday, they tested the waters with a small group of Toyota workers at the brand’s Georgetown, Kentucky plant. The UAW is smacking their lips at the prospect of dining on catfish sushi.
The meeting was the direct result of a major management screw up. In January, Toyota’s leadership discovered that an employee at the plant had unearthed a confidential file on a shared network drive . The document disclosed the fact that ToMoCo's management was discussing "a greater emphasis on variable pay and ways to slow the growth of our labor costs, including the cost of benefits."
The memo recommended that Toyota work to bring its wage structure into closer alignment with other local industries and "not tie ourselves so closely to the U.S. auto industry or other competitors." Translation: Toyota’s higher ups are unhappy that the company’s labor costs (as a percentage of sales) are increasing faster than their profit margins.
Despite Toyota’s attempts at damage control, the press got ahold of the memo. Rather than fess-up and explain their competitive dilemma, Toyota sacrificed a pair of a scapegoats. They fired two Georgetown plant employees for allegedly accessing and distributing the confidential document.
The employees admitted reading the doc (as did several hundred others), but denied sending it to the press. As allowed by Toyota personnel policy, they pleaded their case before a five-member peer review board. The board ruled that they were both innocent. Toyota management overruled the review board’s decision and fired them.
Salting the wounds, Toyota remained silent on any investigations into– or disciplinary actions against– the person or persons who left the confidential document on the company-wide computer network.
As expected, the UAW seized upon this “unpleasantness” to step up their efforts to unionize the Toyota plant, to gain a precious foothold deep in the heart of non-union territory. On Saturday, the UAW hosted a town hall forum entitled “The Human Cost of Toyota’s Success” in Lexington, Kentucky.
About 150 UAW representatives, Toyota employees, members of the press and other interested parties attended the meeting. Even though the Georgetown plant employs almost 7k workers, only five people spoke at the gathering, including the workers who were dismissed over the confidential document. No representatives from Toyota management attended– at least not officially.
The speakers addressed the document’s implications for Toyota’s HR plans. They also aired a number of complaints about the way the Georgetown plant is managed. They asserted that Toyota does not take workplace injuries seriously, that full-time workers have “disappeared” (to be replaced by lower cost temporary workers) and that training opportunities have dwindled to the point of extinction.
Needless to say, it this was music to the UAW’s collective ears. “It’s time for Toyota to sign a contract with us like everyone else they do business with,” Vice President Terry Thurman announced. The man who directs the UAW’s National Organizing department and helped organize the meeting added, “This is all about Toyota workers.”
The sequence of those two statements tells you everything you need to know about the UAW’s priorities. There’s only one reason they’re making a full-court press against Toyota: it’s their only hope for survival. If the UAW has any success organizing Georgetown you can rest assured they’ll start looking for further inroads into the rest of the transplants’ non-union plants.
Even though the UAW stated their Toyota kvetchfest was not an “organizing event,” they now have a foot firmly in Toyota’s door. The UAW and the National Jobs with Justice Campaign plan to capitalize on their success by establishing a Worker’s Rights Board in Kentucky. According to the UAW's press release, this organization “will be available to hear personal stories of Toyota workers and recommend appropriate remedies when necessary.” In other words, they’ll be collecting information they can use to further their attempts to organize the plant.
And they’ll be moving on from there. One worker from the Toyota plant in West Virginia attending the Kentucky meeting asked if the UAW could conduct a similar meeting for workers at his plant. Of course, the union immediately agreed, seizing the chance to get a presence established at a second Toyota location.
Toyota has no one to blame but itself for this perilous state of affairs. Their sloppy record keeping and short sighted damage control could give the UAW the leverage they need to start pulling Toyota into the same rat hole that disappeared Detroit. Meanwhile, even as they seek to organize Toyota, the UAW continues to call the automaker their enemy. And so it is.