Tuesday, May 18, 2004

Toyota proves union-resistant

After latest Ky. attempt, UAW is sent packing

By Brett Clanton
The Detroit News

GEORGETOWN, Ky. - Milt Sizemore has had enough of the United Auto Workers union. He's tired of the annual recruiting drives and all of the promises that come with them. Like hundreds of other workers at Toyota Motor Corp.'s massive factory here, he just wants to do his job and go home.

He may get his wish.

Late last month, national UAW organizers pulled out of town after yet another failed recruiting drive.

For nearly two decades, the UAW has been trying to win the right to represent workers at Toyota's Georgetown plant. And for nearly two decades, a majority of them have said, "No, thank you.''

It's a critical setback for the UAW, which has endured steep membership declines since the 1980s and needs to gain a foothold in new auto plants in the South to replenish its ranks.

The defeat in Georgetown also threatens to further erode the power and influence of America's largest industrial union, putting it at risk of becoming irrelevant to a new generation of U.S. auto workers.

"Our company has issues and problems like any other place,'' said Sizemore, 39, who works in production control for Toyota. "But I don't feel like the UAW is going to do any better for us.''

Nonunion auto plants in the South, mainly run by foreign automakers, have been careful to pay workers as well or better than workers in Midwest union factories run by Detroit's Big Three.

Toyota, which has its North American manufacturing headquarters in Erlanger, and other foreign makers with Southern factories, have been capturing a growing portion of U.S. auto sales.

General Motors Corp., Ford Motor Co. and DaimlerChrysler AG's Chrysler Group, fighting to stay competitive, have been looking for ways to cut soaring health care and pension costs.

Pro-union forces in Georgetown warn that the fortunes of the foreign automakers could turn overnight, leaving workers vulnerable to pay cuts or layoffs.

The arguments have yet to gain traction with most Toyota workers.

National UAW representatives abandoned their headquarters in a Georgetown hotel last month after only 37 percent of workers signed cards supporting UAW representation during a recruiting drive that began in November.

If the union collects cards from more than 50 percent of workers, it can hold what's called a "card check'' election and demand recognition from the National Labor Relations Board as the official bargaining agent for the workers.

Pro-union workers at Toyota say they will continue the organizing drive, noting that signed cards remain valid through this November. And they insist the UAW is still involved in the campaign.

"We're not on our own,'' said Gene Toler, a production worker at Toyota who is a member of the voluntary organizing committee, a pro-union group. "We're in constant communication with the national office.''

The pro-union forces have their work cut out for them.

An organized opposition movement emerged this year at Toyota. Calling themselves the "Truth Finders,'' the group has a Web site and monthly newsletter.

"This is really like a second job,'' said Marvin Robbins, 35, a founding member of Truth Finders and five-year veteran of Toyota's assembly shop.

Truth Finders' main mission is to remind workers at Toyota how good they have it.

How many other plants have a 24-hour day care, discount pharmacy and a credit union onsite?

Truth Finders also tries to clear up misconceptions about worker pay, which - at $24 an hour for most employees - is less than the hourly rates in most unionized plants in the Midwest.

But when benefits and biannual bonus payouts are added, Toyota's compensation package is the second highest in the country, trailing only DaimlerChrysler AG's Mercedes-Benz plant in Vance, Ala., according to Truth Finders.

"People like to complain about their jobs,'' said Daisy Lowe, 37, a 14-year veteran of Toyota. "But nobody quits.''

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