NEW YORK (CNNfn) - A vote Friday may give the Canadian Auto Workers union a beachhead representing employees of a Toyota Motors Corp. assembly plant in Cambridge, Ontario, which would be the first time a union won such a vote at an overseas automaker's plant in North America.|
Various Japanese automakers now operate 14 plants in North America, and German automakers have two. None of those plants has union representation, unlike the 62 plants operated by the Big Three U.S.-based automakers, or the three joint-venture plants of U.S. and Japanese automakers, all of which are unionized.
The Japanese automakers have been building many of their vehicles in North America for the better part of two decades, helping them make inroads into the U.S. market and reducing the clout of the CAW and United Auto Workers union.
According to Autodata, a statistical service that follows the industry, about 1.6 million vehicles sold in the United States in the first six months of the year came from the transplant plants, equal to about 19 percent of industry sales. That compares with 2.3 million vehicles imported from Japan and sold here, and about 275,000 imported from Germany.
The transplant facilities generally have better productivity than the Big Three plants. A union official charges some of that advantage comes at the cost of employees, who are denied a voice in how work is done and are subject to work speed-ups not seen by workers at unionized plants. He said that's a key driver behind Friday's union vote.
The assembly line at the Toyota plant in Cambridge, Ontario, where workers voted Friday on whether they wanted to be represented by the Canadian Auto Workers union.|
"It's got the company shook up, challenging their basic foundation," said Paul Forder, the CAW's director of organizing. "Whether we win or lose, it's a strong condemnation of systems they have in place."
A spokesman for the Toyota plant in Cambridge, near Toronto, said the company is confident that the union will not win the vote, and said it's possible that the Ontario Labor Relations Board, which is conducting the vote, will decide to void the election before the ballots are even counted.
After voting ends early Saturday morning, the ballots are to be sealed without a count while the two sides submit arguments to the board as to which employees should be included in a potential bargaining unit, and whether the union has collected enough signatures to allow the vote counting to proceed.
"The bar the union has to jump over to prompt a vote is not as high in Ontario as in the U.S.," said Greig Mordue, spokesman for the company. "The feeling here is it is better to have a quick vote, then worry about details of whether to proceed."
Forder concedes that Toyota's pay scales already are in line with the CAW contracts at the Big Three plants there, although he said pension and some other benefits are not as good. He said the main issue prompting the organizing effort is worker rights issues.
"It's health and safety, it's not having a real grievance procedure," Forder said. "They have this team system in place, but the workers don't have any voice. It's very patronizing in our view."
Mordue said management is confident that workers support the team concept. It is pushing to have 455 team leaders included in the representation vote. The union opposes that, saying those individuals should be considered members of management, not rank-and-file.
There are about 1,900 other production workers in the 12-year-old Cambridge plant. Management also is seeking to have about 200 students in the plant have a vote, which the union also opposes.
The Cambridge plant makes the subcompact Corolla and the Camry Solara, and has the capacity of about 200,000 vehicles a year. It is slated to start making the Matrix, a cross-over vehicle between a car and sport/utility vehicle, in January, and the Lexus RX-300 starting in 2003, when capacity is set to increase 10 percent.
According to the Harbour Reports, a well-regarded measure of auto plant efficiency published by Harbour & Associates, the Cambridge plant is the most efficient subcompact plant in North America, taking 17.73 hours to build a vehicle.
The continent's most efficient plant is another non-union transplant, the Nissan plant in Smyrna, Tenn., which takes 16.33 hours to build a vehicle. Nissan, Honda Motor Co. (HMC: down $2.55 to $88.25, Research, Estimates) and Toyota all ranked more efficient than the U.S.-based automakers.
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But there are union plants among the industry's most efficient plants here, including the Atlanta plant that makes Ford Motor Co.'s (F: down $0.69 to $24.34, Research, Estimates) Taurus and takes only 16.93 hours per vehicle. A General Motors Corp. (GM: down $1.69 to $61.76, Research, Estimates) plant in Oshawa, Ontario, takes 17.54 hours to make the Impala and Monte Carlo.
Mordue says the company does not believe productivity will be affected even if the union does win representation.
"CAW has been courting our team members pretty hard for two years, and during that time its been business as usual," he said.