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?

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