Can Labor Win Big Battle Against Toyota?

March 18, 2008

It has all the makings of an epic battle. Toyota Motor Co. is facing as vote, this week, by workers intent on organizing their assembly plant. It would be a major victory for the labor movement, if the vote goes against the automaker, marking the first time workers have voted in favor of a union at one of the Asian assembly plants in North America.

The plant in question is in Cambridge, Ontario, and the union seeking a place on the line is, unexpectedly, the International Association of Machinists, rather than the Canadian Auto Workers Union, which represents all the Big Three plants in that country. But for organized labor, who represents workers is secondary to securing a win.

Since the first transplant arrived in North America, a quarter century ago, the union movement has suffered a steady string of defeats. That first factory, the Honda assembly line in Marysville, Ohio, remains without union. In fact, only a small number of “transplant” lines, whether run by Japanese, German or South Korean carmakers, stamps its products with the “made by union workers” label. And to a one, those exceptions are plants that started out as joint ventures between a foreign maker and one of the Big Three. These include the GM/Toyota-run NUMMI, in Fremont, California, and the Ford/Mazda plant, in Flat Rock, Michigan.

Every effort to organize a purely foreign-owned plant has been beaten back – at least so far, which is why the automotive world will be watching so closely when workers at Toyota Motor Manufacturing Canada cast their ballots, on Thursday. “The support we’re seeing is overwhelming,” Machinists organizer Ian Morland told the Detroit Free Press. We’ll see. In the U.S., the United Auto Workers Union has, on several occasions, thought it was bound for glory, only to cancel organizing votes, at the last minute, or to face ignominious defeat at the polls.

Why has it been so difficult? For one thing, most of the transplants in the U.S. have been opened in either right-to-work states or states less friendly to unions. Manufacturers like Toyota have aggressively fought unionization efforts. But the unions, both UAW and CAW, also deserve some of the blame. While it may look good to their current members to call a strike, the threat of labor strife only scares off those who aren’t unionized. Many of these first-time autoworkers have been showered with what, to them, are lavish benefits and wages – and by and large, the foreign makers have come close to matching union pay.

But as the transplants become more firmly entrenched, troubles begin, no matter how benevolent they might think themselves. Workers at several Toyota plants in the U.S. have been complaining – and talking to unions – about on-the-job hazards and other issues. These are the same things that opened the door for the UAW, early last century, at the Big Three.

So, while a victory in Cambridge wouldn’t guarantee a revival of automotive labor unions, it would certainly be seen as a critical first step.

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