Civic Leaders Heed Toyota Workers' Outcry
June 13, 2007
A crowd of about 200 people made up of current and former workers shared their protest last Sunday at Toyota's Kentucky plant. Workers’ grievances include low wages and poor working conditions. These grievances were heeded by the Kentucky Workers' Rights Board - a panel of religious and civic leaders pushing for better labor conditions.
Many of the workers are from the Georgetown plant that produces the Camry. The meeting unraveled rallying points many in the assembly line are hoping will ultimately lead to unionization. Like foreign-owned auto companies across the South, Toyota is nonunion, but the leaders on the board empathize with the workers and many contend change is essential. The application of efficient brakes is required to stop the unjust labor practice.
"We are people of community, and part of our community has said to us that things are not exactly the way they need to be in the work situation at Toyota," said the Rev. John Rausch, the coordinator of peace and justice at the Catholic Diocese in Lexington. "We are not trying to tear Toyota down. We are trying to make it better and have a better partner in community."
Two current employees and two terminated ones described what they said were extraordinary steps taken by the company to prevent union organization. Toyota officials decline to give comment Sunday.
The Workers' Rights Board, which includes Democratic state Reps. Reginald Meeks and Jim Glenn, has no influence over policy or personnel matters at Toyota. Conversely, after the hearing which lasted more than two hours, the Board issued several recommendations including changes in the peer review process as well as the 90-day probation period for temporary workers, who would become permanent after the lapse of that time.
A key concentration of the hearing was the Japanese automaker’s use of temporary workers, who some of the employees said were doing the same amount of work as the full-timers for half the pay. "They're trying to get a job there," said Cornelia James, who has worked at Toyota for 19 years. "Full-time employment is dangled in front of them like a carrot, and they're told, any missteps and you're out."
Noel Riddell, who was fired this year after a decade of service at the plant, said that he was disciplined after discussing with co-workers a document he found detailing a plan for wages. He was fired in spite of being supported by a peer-review process, Riddell said. "What was my crime? Knowledge," he said. "I will not go quietly."
Other workers divulged alleged incidents of sexual harassment and workers being discharged after on-the-job injuries. "Today U.S. autoworkers are analogous to professional athletes," said William Maloney of the University of Kentucky's Center for Labor Education and Research. "You're trading your body for a paycheck, and it's not right."
The Toyota Motor Manufacturing, Kentucky, Inc. (TMMK) is the automaker’s largest manufacturing plant in North America. The company earlier said that the visitors of the plant will soon get a glimpse at how robots will make life easier in the future. Toyota’s Partner Robot was engineered to mimic human mannerisms. To sport its agility and manners, programmers designed the robot to perform one of the most charming of human skills which is playing a musical instrument. Using its dexterous fingers and lips, the robot is able to walk and play the trumpet. The aftermath is a human-like robot that is capable of doing labor intensive, yet complex tasks.
But more than just a flexible robot, the workers need a compassionate soft spot that could understand their working condition. The workers hope the problems are addressed at the soonest possible time.
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