Oh What a Feeling! The UAW Targets Toyota

Frank Williams
by Frank Williams

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.

Frank Williams
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  • Dkulmacz Dkulmacz on Apr 11, 2007

    I too was enthralled with Ayn Rand when I first discovered her writing. I've outgrown it, though. She fits perfectly my definition of an idealist . . . her ideas sound great in theory, but frankly they simply ignore many of the practicalities of real life. Remember, she was writing from the perspective of a former citizen of communist USSR, in the thick of the cold war. It's entirely possible that a thinking person such as herself might write some entirely different books now if she were raised in the immoral disparity to be found in today's America. I doubt she would find many Roarke or Galt-like heros in any of todays CEOs, that's for sure. I think it is implicit in many of the writings here that a lot of the posters somehow feel that they are immune to the march of Globalization. Either that, or they're true idealists who don't find any problem in the fact that they may be destined to be priced out of a job by someone in India or China . . . willing to elevate the principals of Capitalism even above their own well being. Not me, man. Unless you're a plumber or a truck driver, I'm afraid you are not immune at all. Lawyers, doctors, accountants, consultants, journalists . . . ANY job -- knowledge based or otherwise -- can be done more cheaply (and perhaps better) by someone, somewhere. So why do you glorify and exhalt the unavoidable march downward? Why glorify the fact that the typical US citizen is being pulled down to the level of the masses in 'Third World' countries? Let's face it . . . most people in this country are or at least begin as 'wage slaves'. The story of a poor man with nothing who bootstraps himself into a success from the get-go is becoming more and more mythological. Where do you get the capital to start that small business? Not from thin air, I'm sure. You either get it as a legacy/inheritance, or you borrow it, or you earn it via other means (i.e., a wage-paying job). Many here are arguing to essentially eliminate the third option, since even earning a living wage will become less and less possible . . . let alone saving to start a small business. So we're back to feudal state where the genetically lucky inherit wealth and can continue to make more wealth, and the rest of the world are serfs. At the mercy of the royalty of the monied class, or the money-lenders (basically the same, I would say). How is that good? If you got your start via legacy, and plan to pass that on to your children, then lucky you. But if you got your start by working for a wage (or by lunching off the wages made by your parents), then why suddenly is it right to deny that opportunity to the children of others? I'm afraid I see a common theme run through the typical commentaries posted in the threads here . . . essentially all can be boiled down to the belief in self above all others. "the other guy makes too much money for what he does . . . " "what they need to do is dump the pension and health care liabilities . . ." "choice B is better than choice A, so I'm buying it . . . I don't care who suffers from collateral damage . . ." "I had a bad experience so I hope they go out of business . . . that'll show'em . . ." "if 'the man' is screwing you, you're free to take a walk . . . hope you have a big enough bank account to pay the mortgage for a while . . ." It's sad, really .. .

  • Jim H Jim H on Apr 16, 2007

    Having read only about 1/2 the comments…I’m drawn back to the original memo that leaked out. This is about record profits to share holders (the rich) while removing benefits and pay from the workers (the poor). Where is the balance between a communistic and slave/endentured servant society? I don’t honestly know, but it appears that Toyota is moving the pendulum towards the rich and it’s share holders…and exploiting it’s workers. While I agree we are all employed at the discretion of our employers, hard work still cuts into profits. If I give 29 years and 350 days of my life to a company where I work my butt off…isn’t it a sad thing to know that they can lay me off to screw me out of retirement? My loyalty means very, very little to number crunchers (aka bean counters). Bad press is the only weapon many employees have. Did you all read about the employees at Toyota being laid off after being injured on the job? How’s that for company commitment? I really shouldn’t blame Toyota though…if that’s what our government does to injured soldiers (or non-combat military), why should I hold the bar higher for Toyota? Oh yeah…the company makes millions of dollars in profits. Why is it that share holders demand 20% return on their investment each year? This is called greed. Some of the things the UAW has done is downright idiotic. Good intentions, perhaps. Horrible implementation. The more our society and business revolves around generating money for shareholders, the more we’ll see employees get screwed over. Period.

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  • 3-On-The-Tree Alan, I was an Apache pilot and after my second back surgery I was medically boarded off of flying status due to vibrations, climbing on and off aircraft, so I was given the choice of getting out or re-branching so I switched to Military Intel. Yes your right if you can’t perform your out doesn’t matter if your at 17 years. Dad always said your just a number, he was a retired command master chief 25 years.