Volunteer Organizers Report Progress Slow, But Improving at Plant in Georgetown, Kentucky
Workers at Toyota in Georgetown, Kentucky have been pounding the union drum for 16 years and counting. For the workers, progress has been slow but steadily improving. Toyota is feeling the heat. Union supporters have been fired and the number of temporary replacements is skyrocketing.
As Outside Track, a weekly pro-union flyer, declared, "It ain't over until we say it's over." I asked volunteer organizers, why the UAW? Why not an independent union? They replied, "We think we should be united with all auto workers."
Who said southerners know nothing about unionism?
When I asked Volunteer Organizer, Mark Kinney, why he was willing to run the risk, Mark turned a place mat over on the restaurant table. He drew five concentric circles. He pointed to the smallest circle in the center, "This is Toyota." He labeled the circle surrounding Toyota, Georgetown. The next circle, Kentucky. Then, the United States, and finally, the world. "What we do here," Mark said indicating Toyota, "Affects everyone. If we fail to organize, Toyota will suppress everything. Wages in Georgetown, the state of Kentucky, and all over the US will be impacted; suppliers, temp workers, the tax base, the general economy, everything." If you want to start a union, that's the place to begin -- at the heart of the struggle. Our quest for workers' rights affects everyone, and a victory for one is a victory for all.
I asked each volunteer organizer I met the same question: "Why do you take the risk?"
"We are going to lose it all anyway," said Kenny Harper. "Working without a union contract is a bigger risk than trying to organize." Kenny claims that wearing a UAW t-shirt isn't a risk. It provides him protection because if he gets fired at least he can go the NLRB and claim he was fired for union activity. "It's better than nothing," he said.
Many workers are understandably scared to voice their opinion. Aileen Waugh tells them, "I've been wearing UAW t-shirts every day for a year. I always carry union cards in my pocket. Why are you scared?"
They are scared they will lose their jobs, or the favor they are counting on from the boss, or their chance for an appointment off the line.
The pace on the line is merciless. Mark Miller lost his job due to an injury sustained while mounting engines, "one every 55 seconds."
Few workers can survive 25 years on the line at Toyota. And as Toyota tightens the screws and increases the use of temps and contract workers, opportunities for jobs off the line diminish.
Workers with as little as a one percent medical restriction have been told that Toyota doesn't have a job for them. They are offered a minimal buyout and workers' compensation.
UAW members at the Big Three expect to work 30 years, and very few withdraw without a full pension plus full medical coverage without premiums, no matter what their age.
Instead of a defined pension, Toyota provides a defined "contribution" to a worker's 401(k) plan. The average hourly worker doesn't have a clue what their monthly retirement benefit will be.
Worker Brenda Donahue told me, "I am 52 years old. I have worked there since 1989 and have $53,000 right now in my pension. I can retire at age 55 but I will have to pay 20 percent of my insurance and I won't be able to withdraw from my 401(k) until I am 591/2 years old." She has no idea what the 20 percent insurance premium will amount to-Toyota won't tell her.
And of course, Toyota reserves the right to "change, amend, or terminate" at their discretion. It's not a retirement plan, it's a crap game with loaded dice.
Jeff Allen, a production worker, said he was willing to run the risk of organizing a union because "I have two kids. I want to provide for them. I don't want them to provide for me because I have no insurance and an inadequate pension." Perhaps the biggest hurdle for organizers is the fact that Toyota pays wages and health benefits considerably higher than other employers in the area.
THE UNION ADVANTAGE?
In such cases the biggest advantage of a union is better working conditions. But competition from non-union plants has forced many union shops to adopt some of the same dehumanizing processes as Toyota. The difference is, nothing stands between the worker and the meat grinder in a shop without a union.
The Toyota production system better known as lean production was made famous by the book, The Machine That Changed the World. Its authors claim that under the Toyota system not only are workers guaranteed job security, high salaries and benefits, but also a "humanly fulfilling" alternative to mass production.
Takao Kimura, Assistant Professor of Nagoya Economics University, wrote in the Robo-Soken Journal: "I haven't seen such a description ever made as far from the reality."
Professor Kimura reports that lean production in Japan has spread to all sectors of the workforce. "Consequently, due to the stress caused by long working hours, intensive labor and excessive quota, sudden death from overwork has been seen among the workers of all job types and all ages." In the final analysis it will be the employer not the union who pushes workers over the edge. The edge is getting closer in Georgetown.
Toyota insists that its safety record is as good as or better than any Big Three plant's, but the truth hides behind the numbers. Workers at Toyota try to conceal their injuries. In the Toyota production system no allowance is made for workers who get hurt. If workers admit they are hurt, they lose their job. Manuel Eads told me, "One day a team member passed out and had to be rushed to the hospital. I said, 'I wonder if it had anything to do with the fumes?' The team leader replied, 'Why is that your business?'"
The volunteer organizers understand that the body wears out. They know there's nothing "humanly fulfilling" about Toyota's lean production system. And they also know that the only hope for an alternative is a union.
The current union drive ends in November if enough authorization cards are not signed at the plant to warrant an election. The volunteer organizers aren't planning on surrendering if enough cards aren't collected. They vow they will begin all over again.