In Kentucky, Toyota Faces Union Rumblings

Aileen Waugh, who injured her hand on the job at Toyota's factory in Georgetown, Ky., helps prepare a candlelight vigil for the plant's injured workers at a park in Georgetown.
Aileen Waugh, who injured her hand on the job at Toyota's factory in Georgetown, Ky., helps prepare a candlelight vigil for the plant's injured workers at a park in Georgetown. (By David Harpe For The Washington Post)
By Sholnn Freeman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 26, 2007

GEORGETOWN, Ky. -- Dissident workers at the Toyota plant here gather at the Best Western Georgetown on Wednesdays between shifts to shape a battle plan. The workers are angry at conditions at this flagship Toyota site, where the best-selling Camry is built.

The United Auto Workers has launched a big new push to organize the plant, trying to capitalize on fears of lower pay, outsourcing of jobs and on Toyota's treatment of injured workers. The stakes for the UAW intensified this month as a private-equity firm agreed to buy Chrysler, raising fears that the union will be unable to block cuts in jobs and benefits at a privately owned automaker.

The Chrysler deal has underscored the UAW's diminished clout as membership has shrunk along with jobs at the Detroit automakers. The UAW has never succeeded in organizing a foreign auto assembly plant in the United States, but Toyota's emergence as the world's largest automaker has added urgency to this effort. The UAW will begin new contract negotiations this summer without any workers from Toyota.

"We've got a lot of work to do," said Charles Lite, 41, a member of the organizing group, speaking of the effort at Toyota. "No more mistakes."

The UAW and the workers have seized on leaked business documents from Toyota that detail a plan to put a lid on manufacturing wages in the United States. At a new factory being built in Mississippi, Toyota plans to pay workers about $20 an hour in a region where many people earn $12 to $13 an hour. The average Toyota worker at Georgetown makes about $25 an hour.

Toyota officials say the increasing pressures of the auto business have caused the company to reevaluate worker's compensation policies -- a matter that has to be negotiated with the union at UAW-represented plants. Toyota today is one of the auto industry's most profitable companies, and officials think its continued success depends on controlling costs.

"We think the historic American approach to things is to run full blast, pay out as high as you can in the short term while times are good, and then when times go bust, you lay people off, you shut plants and you destroy communities," said Pete Gritton, a Toyota vice president who oversees human resources at the company's plant. "Toyota does not want to do that."

Gritton said adjusting pay scales would ultimately translate into stable employment for American autoworkers. He said Toyota is seeking to maintain cost-effective growth in the United States so it can compete with low-wage countries such as China, Mexico and Brazil.

"We are the only major manufacturer of automobiles that is trying to grow and expand its business in the U.S. right now," Gritton said. "Everybody else is trying to collapse and shrink and send it to somewhere else for lower costs."

Some Toyota workers agree. "I think the people I work with are not really for a union," said Tina Goad, who has worked at Georgetown for 13 years. She acknowledged that there have been some injuries and other problems, but added: "This is a manufacturing place. Things happen. If I was a secretary in a some bank for 30 years, I could get carpal tunnel from working on computers. They always want to blame Toyota."

But others are upset, saying autoworkers are losing ground. Ed McKenna, 52, is part of the group fighting for a Toyota union. He said he recently came across a worker getting paid $8.50 an hour for a production job that is now outsourced. "It was the same job I had five years ago making $23 an hour," he said. "We can't tolerate that."

Other workers complained about poor treatment after getting injured on the job. Jennifer York, 40, injured discs in her back and got carpal tunnel syndrome in one of her wrists from building engines. She was then put to work printing papers that tell other workers what parts go on which cars.

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