Rethinking Toyota, autoworkers and allies

Workers’ Correspondence

People who own Toyotas are either the moral equivalent of scabs or they are one of the most potentially powerful allies U.S. organized labor has today.

Which perspective labor decides to take could well determine the success or failure of the UAW and other industrial unions in organizing the more than two dozen foreign car plants that have been built in the United States since 1982.

The idea of a daring new strategy to help workers organize at Toyota and other foreign auto makers came out of a statement made by a member of a Jobs with Justice Workers Rights Board in Kentucky.

“It’s clear to me that a lot of people — forward-thinking, optimistic, liberal, progressive people — buy Toyotas. And those are the kind of people who also believe in equity, fairness, rights and justice. And when those kinds of people find out that the Toyotas they are buying are supporting a company that may not be everything they thought it was, that’s where the change will come,” said Rev. Cynthia Cain of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Lexington, Ky.

Cain recently learned first-hand how Toyota isn’t everything it’s cracked up to be. As a member of the public hearing panel organized by Kentucky Jobs with Justice, she heard testimony in June from current and former Toyota workers at the company’s Georgetown, Ky., assembly plant.

The Georgetown plant has been producing Avalons, Camrys and Solaras since 1988. Cain sat on the citizens panel that heard testimony concerning illegal firings, sexual discrimination, exploitation of temporary workers, unsafe working conditions and bad corporate citizenship.

Toyota hires temporary workers at $13 an hour, for instance, compared to $30 an hour (including bonuses) that its permanent workers are paid. Temps are often kept in a nonpermanent status for an average of two years, and many are never made permanent. They can also be easily dismissed.

Two regular workers were fired because they happened upon a company memo that was sitting on a public drive on their work computer. The memo discussed Toyota’s plans to lower the wages of its North American workforce. The two workers were fired for “disruptive behavior” when they told co-workers what they had read.

Another Toyota worker testified that workers injured on the job simply “disappear” from the workforce forever with no explanation.

“We have a right to know how many workers are injured, what type of injuries they suffered, and what happens to our injured co-workers. Hiding this information is wrong. That’s not what we were promised,” this 18-year Toyota veteran said.

If Cain is correct that many Toyota owners made their car purchases based on personal values, such as caring for the planet, then it might be a good bet they also care about people on the planet, including those who build Toyotas.

Just think what a powerful movement could result from the merger of America’s labor union members and progressive-minded consumers. The goal here would not be to call for a boycott of Toyotas. That would only serve to alienate the people labor would be trying to build an alliance with.

Toyota is here to stay. Plus the company has set itself the goal of producing in the United States all the cars and trucks it sells here. That wouldn’t be a bad goal for General Motors, either. Labor also cannot ignore the reality that foreign manufacturers now control more than 50 percent of the auto market in this country.

A Toyota Owners for Fairness group could generate e-petitions and letters calling on management not only to comply with the recommendations of the Kentucky Workers Rights Board, but also to remain neutral while their workers decide for themselves whether to form a union.

If Toyota really listens to car buyers, then maybe the fastest growing auto company in the world might get the message that workers’ rights is just as important to its customers as fuel efficiency.

Jobs with Justice column reprinted from the Detroit Labor News.

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