Toyota Powers Ahead at Kentucky Plant General Motors and Ford are preparing to slash jobs and close plants, while foreign car makers like Toyota are continuing to build new ones in the South. Toyota's Georgetown, Ky., plant is booming -- and still non-union.
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Toyota Powers Ahead at Kentucky Plant

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Toyota Powers Ahead at Kentucky Plant

Toyota Powers Ahead at Kentucky Plant

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

Today we have another look at US autoworkers, the ones employed by foreign companies. As General Motors and Ford prepare to slash jobs and close plants, foreign carmakers continue to build new facilities in the South. Targeting rural areas, companies like Honda and Hyundai have tapped an eager labor force while keeping costs down.

NORRIS: And unlike Detroit's Big Three, these car companies don't have to haggle with unions. Yesterday we heard from GM workers at a plant in suburban Atlanta. Today, as Toyota tries to overtake GM as the world's biggest carmaker, NPR's Frank Langfitt visited Toyota's plant in Kentucky to meet a new breed of US autoworker.

FRANK LANGFITT reporting:

To understand how Toyota has kept the United Auto Workers at bay, spend a few minutes with Renee Brown. She works on the Camry, the nation's best-selling car. She puts in seat belts and cup holders at Toyota's plant in Kentucky horse country. But Brown grew up an hour and a half away in Beattyville, a tiny, struggling town in the state's Appalachian coalfields. Since Toyota opened its plant in 1987, people told her it was the place to work.

Ms. RENEE BROWN (Toyota Employee): When you're younger, you always hear--everybody, `Oh, you need a job at Toyota. You need a job at Toyota. You know, they pay good benefits, they have good pay.' It's hard work. And hard work--I mean, you got to work. So why not work somewhere that's going to pay you good, give you good benefits?

LANGFITT: Beattyville was once a coal town, but it doesn't have many good jobs anymore. Brown worked as assistant manager at Dairy Queen, where she made $20,000 annually. Six years ago she got a job at Toyota. Now she makes $70,000 a year, more than twice the average manufacturing wage in the area.

Ms. BROWN: I mean, I come from someone who used to work at a fast-food joint. And, I mean, you don't make much money there and there's definitely no insurance. So to me, it was like winning the lottery.

LANGFITT: The United Auto Workers have tried to crack the Toyota plant since before it opened. Last spring they opened their own organizing office just down the road. But Brown says that Toyota's wages are so close to the union's, she doesn't see the advantage.

Ms. BROWN: It's not that I have anything against union people; I don't. It's just I don't see that it benefits this plant in any way as far as benefits, pay and all that. You know, it--and it was a good thing in its time: coal miners, the beginning days of Ford and GM. I mean, I read back in the archives and stuff that it was pretty rough back then. There was so safety, you know, or anything like that. So in their time, I'm sure they were a good thing, but I think they're on their way out.

LANGFITT: That workers like Brown aren't interested in unions is no accident. It's the result of a strategy foreign car companies have used for years. Gary Chaison teaches industrial relations at Clark University in Massachusetts.

Professor GARY CHAISON (Clark University): Foreign auto manufacturers chose sectors of the country in which they had rural work forces that would be very pleased to get an industrial job that was well-paying and in which there was no tradition of unionization, in which they couldn't say that they had a member of their family who had gained substantial protection through unionization.

LANGFITT: Chaison says companies like Toyota also try to treat workers well, take their opinions into account and give them a stake in the plant's success.

Prof. CHAISON: They operate under the philosophy very similar to Wal-Mart's, I think: that management causes unions, that management creates the conditions in which workers want to unionize. As a result, they're very careful to communicate with workers, and they're also very concerned about finding out what troubles workers and trying to resolve that as soon as they can.

LANGFITT: Despite the wages, some Toyota workers say they need a union. They complain the company drives them so hard that people get injured, can't work anymore and then Toyota pays them off to leave. Leonard Habermehl is a skilled repairman and makes up to $85,000 a year. When he came to Toyota in 1990, he didn't see why he needed a union.

Mr. LEONARD HABERMEHL (Toyota Employee): When I first came to work there, people would approach me about the UAW and I said, `We don't need it here.' I really did. I said, `We don't need it.' And it took me probably six years before I decided that we needed a union in there. And yet I saw people hurt, who would lose their job, people being harassed on the job, and I'm ashamed to say I thought more of myself than I did the other people. My thinking has changed.

LANGFITT: The plant employs 7,000 people and is slated to build 340,000 Camrys this year. Next year it will produce the new Camry hybrid, a point of pride among all employees. Pete Gritton oversees human resources at the plant. He says attrition among workers is below 3 percent. Each year he estimates about 15 leave because of injuries. Gritton says the company tries to find them other jobs, but can't always make a match. Overall, he says workers seem pretty satisfied with the company.

Mr. PETE GRITTON (Toyota Employee): I think our team members have chosen, for a variety of reasons for the last 19 years, not to bring a union in. So I think we are doing some things right--certainly not everything; we have our share of problems. And I think unless something happens to change that, I don't think the union would be successful here.

LANGFITT: If organizing workers was tough before, Habermehl says it's even harder now with the UAW under siege. Ford and GM are looking to cut tens of thousands of jobs. And Delphi, the world's largest auto parts maker, had demanded union wage cuts of more than 50 percent before backing off yesterday.

Mr. HABERMEHL: It's a difficult thing for me to come up to a person with a union card and ask them to sign when the Delphi management is saying, `We want concessions. We want to stop the benefits for your retirees.' So people are saying, `Well, maybe a union contract isn't so good. Maybe there isn't a protection there.'

LANGFITT: But Habermehl says future wages for Toyota workers depend on the UAW, whether plant employees realize it or not.

Mr. HABERMEHL: If the Big Three and Delphi break the unions and break these contracts and wages go backwards and benefits go backwards, we will follow them. We have followed the industry. When they got a raise, we got a raise. That's how they kept the union out.

LANGFITT: Habermehl isn't optimistic about unionizing Toyota. Once an activist, he doesn't spend as much time around the organizing office these days. He says the UAW is so distracted by its problems with US automakers it probably won't be able to make a serious run at Toyota. Frank Langfitt, NPR News.

SIEGEL: And to hear the previous story in our series and to see how Toyota and GM stack up against each other in sales, market share and production costs, you can go to our Web site, npr.org.

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