Thursday, February 25, 2010

Is the "Toyota Way" behind the recalls?

A century ago, Frederick W. Taylor, a mechanical engineer whose book The Principles of Scientific Management influenced generations of business owners and managers, had this to say about American working people:

“Underworking … constitutes the greatest evil with which the working people are now afflicted. … Instead of using every effort to turn out the largest possible amount of work, (a worker) deliberately plans to do as little as he safely can, to turn out far less work than he is well able to do; in many instances to do not more than one-third to one-half of a proper day’s work.”

With that contemptuous attitude at a time of sweatshop abuse and rampant child labor, Taylor proceeded to propose that every second and every movement at the workplace be monitored and scientifically managed to eliminate waste, inefficiency, and labor costs in the cause of high productivity and company profits.

Proponents of the so-called “Toyota Way”—the production philosophy employed by the same Japanese giant now reeling from the recall of 8.5 million cars since November—say it’s a “democratic Taylorism” that values workers even as it pushes them constantly toward “continuous improvement,” known in Toyota-speak as kaizen.

What role did the “Toyota Way” play in the current recall? It’s the kind of question you’re never going to hear Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour ask, nor the governors and members of Congress from Kentucky, Texas, West Virginia, and other states where Toyota has built plants. All you’re going to hear from them is a resounding “The Toyota Way Is Okay!”

Indeed, the “Toyota Way” of kaizen and so-called “lean management” is now taught in the public schools at Scott County, Ky., where the company built its first solely owned U.S. plant in 1986—at a cost of nearly $150 million to Kentucky taxpayers.

Even Kindergarteners now learn Toyota-think in Scott County, Ky. With Toyota-trained managers overseeing the process, students learn, for example, to be creative in determining what jobs can be eliminated at a work site without negatively affecting production. What they don’t learn is whether they should question the “Toyota Way”.

Expect public schools in and near Blue Springs, Miss., where the company plans to build a $1.3 billion, 2,000-worker assembly plant, to be incorporating the “Toyota Way” into their future curricula. The University of Mississippi is already there. Earlier this month, the university’s Undergraduate Council approved program and course changes in the School of Engineering that, in cooperation with the newly established Center for Manufacturing Excellence, will teach “lean manufacturing and the Toyota Production System.”

Yet, all is not rosy for Toyota or its way these days. With millions of its cars on recall for pedal, floormat, and brake problems, Toyota president Akio Toyoda has apologized to Congress, television's Larry King, and the nation of Japan, which the New York Times recently called practically a “one-company town.” No company more symbolizes Japanese economic might than Toyota.

Yet sales are dropping. The U.S. Congress is investigating. Even the Prius hybrid, the pride of Toyota, Japan’s best-selling car last year, and the car that is to be built at the Blue Springs plant, is in recall. Toyota has had eight major recalls since September 2007. Lawsuits were filed in February relating vehicle deaths to Toyota deficiencies.

Certified auditor Katy Cameron is probably nodding her head at the irony. After working more than two decades at the New United Motor Manufacturing, Inc., (NUMMI) plant in Alameda County, Calif. she filed a lawsuit in 2007 claiming the jointly run General Motors-Toyota operation took revenge on her after she complained of shoddy practices that allowed cars to be put on the market with bad brakes, faulty seat belts, and a host of other problems. It was her job to spot such problems. The company apparently didn't like what she reported.

More than a year ago, a 65-page report by the New York-based National Labor Committee claimed Toyota subcontractors in Japan forced employees to work 16-hour days and seven days a week at sub-minimum wages to build the same Prius planned for Blue Springs. The report also claimed that migrant workers at Toyota faced a constant threat of deportation if they complained about sweatshop-like conditions.

To Frederick W. Taylor, workers were merely objects to be scientifically managed into little more than highly productive automatons. The “democratic Taylorism” of the Toyota Way is supposed to be an improvement in that philosophy. The company’s current troubles are hardly proof.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Latest round-up of labor activity in the South: A Charleston celebration, a guilty plea in immigrant raid, and a contract for Memphis teachers

To the left is Ken Riley, president of the International Longshoremen's Association Local 1422 in Charleston, S.C.

Let's take a look at some recent labor activity around the South:

CHARLESTON, S.C. - A two-day celebration marking the 10th anniversary of the International Longshoremen's Association victory over an anti-union attorney general and union-busting Danish shipping line will be held Feb. 25 and 26.

Called the "first major labor battle of the 21st century"--in a right-to-work state, no less--the dramatic January 2000 labor action pitted ILA Local 1422 against state troopers and local police who used helicopters, armed vehicles, patrol boats, and attack dogs to squash a picket line. The dockworkers were protesting a decision by the Nordana Shipping Line to break a 22-year-old relationship with the local by hiring nonunion workers. Why pay union workers $16.50 to $25 an hour when nonunion workers will do the job for $8 an hour?

Law enforcement authorities arrested several union members on riot charges that were later tossed. Enter then-South Carolina Attorney General Charlie Condon, a politician cut from the same cloth as "Pitchfork" Ben Tillman, Cole Blease, Cotton Ed Smith, and Strom Thurmond. Vowing "jail, jail, and more jail," Condon got a grand jury to go along with felony indictments against five longshoremen--who came to be known as the "Charleston Five". The five eventually served 18 months under house arrest before agreeing to misdemeanor rioting charges.

The union won its standoff with Nordana after a show of unity by fellow longshoremen in Spain and elsewhere in Europe. The "battle" became a showcase of how international solidarity can be used to win victories for workers' rights. Local 1422 president Ken Riley emerged as not only a hero in Charleston but also a major reform figure in the ILA, a union long tainted by a history of corruption and ties to organized crime.

The Feb. 25/26 celebration will include the launching of a new organizing initiative in the South under the banner "Jobs With Rights Now!"

HATTIESBURG, Miss. - More than a year after the largest workplace raid by federal officials on undocumented workers in U.S. history, we're still waiting to see just how much the federal government is going hold Howard Industries to account for its role in the circumstances that led to the raid.

In December, company executive Jose Humberto Gonzalez pleaded guilty to a charge that he knowingly hired undocumented workers at the company's plant in Laurel.

As a result of the raid, federal agents sent hundreds of immigrant workers to the LaSalle Detention Center in Jena, La., where they were held for weeks without formal charges or the ability to see an attorney. Female immigrant workers arrested at the plant--many of them mothers with young children--were forced to wear monitoring devices on their ankles and forbidden to leave Mississippi.

Their crime? Working without proper documentation at a company that had already been fined for 54 safety violations. They helped make power transformers and voltage regulators, reportedly at wages much less than other workers, and many of them living in substandard conditions as a result.

Gonzales faced a 12-count indictment and pleaded guilty to one of the counts. That could put him in prison for up to five years. He has been the only company official charged with any crime. What about other Howard Industries officials who perhaps don't have Spanish surnames? What did they know and when did they know it? Who looked the other way? I'm not holding my breath for fresh indictments. This is a company known for its owners' gifts to politicians and that was so beloved by Mississippi lawmakers that they awarded it $31.5 million in taxpayer money in 2002 as incentive to expand its operations.

In fact, the state of Mississippi has a new law that penalizes companies using undocumented workers if those companies have public contracts. Whether Howard has faces such penalties or even has such contracts is uncertain, but one of the law's sponsors, state Sen. Lee Yancy, R-Brandon, says he has full confidence that Howard is doing everything it can to abide by the law.

MEMPHIS, Tenn. - Members of the Memphis Education Association have agreed to a new contract with city schools that won them a 2 percent pay raise with the guarantee of another 1 percent pay raise next year.

With the agreement, Memphis City Schools now has signed contracts with all seven of its workers' unions. The pay raise is smaller than in years past, but, given the hard economic times, Memphis Education Association leaders said they were happy to get it. Union membership totals more than 6,000.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Wal-Mart & Toyota, two giants in trouble

Wanna stay busy? Become a Wal-Mart lawyer.

Ten West African immmigrants have filed complaints against the Arkansas-based retailer with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, saying they were unjustly fired by the company although they had worked for years without any complaints until new managers took over stores in Avon and several other Colorado towns. The men feel they were fired because they're foreigners, and because they're black.

Wal-Mart says the firings were simply part of large-scale layoffs and firings at the company. However, the complaints come on the heels of other legal problems. As reported recently in the New York Times, it recently reached a $17.5 million settlement in a class-action case regarding claims it discriminated against African-Americans seeking truck-driving jobs.

Another class-action suit claims Wal-Mart discriminated against 1.6 million former and current female employees in pay raises and promotions. That one has been pending since 2004.

Another giant of interest to Southerners is Toyota, which has a huge plant in Kentucky as well as other plants and operations in West Virginia, Texas, and Mississippi (that plant remains yet-to-be-built). With millions of its cars on recall for pedal, floormat, brake, and other problems, the world's largest automaker is reeling from a certain kind of publicity it has rarely seen in the usually fawning press--bad publicity.

Company president Akio Toyoda has apologized to the nation of Japan. Sales are dropping. The U.S. Congress is investigating--although don't expect a lot of aggressive scrutiny from West Virginia, Kentucky, Texas, and Mississippi politicians. They'd just as soon close the book on this matter with the next announcement from Tokyo that everything's quite hunky-dory.

Toyota has had eight major recalls since September 2007.

Somewhere in California there's a certified auditor nodding her head at the irony of it all. Katy Cameron, who worked more than two decades at the New United Motor Manufacturing, Inc., (NUMMI) plant in Alameda County, filed a lawsuit in 2007 claiming the jointly run General Motors-Toyota operation took revenge on her after she complained of shoddy practices that allowed cars to be put on the market with bad brakes, faulty seat belts, and a host of other problems. It was her job to spot such problems. The company didn't like what she reported.

The recalls and lawsuits like Cameron's call into question the much-touted "Toyota Way" with its philosophy of "kaizen" (continuous improvement), its "just-in-time" production, the much-heralded "andon cord" that allows a single worker to stop an entire assembly line if a problem emerges. Not sure what happens to the worker--oops, I'm sorry, I should have said "team member"--after he pulls that cord.

Now the cord has been pulled on the entire Toyota corporation. What's going to happen to it?