Toyota organizing drive renewed as Corolla production stops

by Gerard Di Trolio

The April 15 announcement that production of the top selling Toyota Corolla would no longer be built in Canada has reignited the union drive at Toyota’s assembly plants in Cambridge and Woodstock, Ontario.

The current drive was launched in late 2013, and began to cool down late last year. However it has been workers at Toyota, and not Unifor’s organizers who are behind this renewed push.

unifor“All of this ramping up of activity is in response to the workers’ desires. They called us,” says Unifor organizer Bob Van Cleef. “Obviously the messages we’ve been providing the workers over the years has resonated, because as soon as the Corolla announcement was made the workers responded by coming to us.”

“We withdrew as a tactic to continue the drive,” says Lee Sperduti, a thirteen-year employee of the Cambridge Toyota plant. Toyota had inflated the employee list during the final push for certification, making it difficult for union organizers to prove they had signed enough cards to force a certification ballot.

“Workers are flocking back to us right now after the disappointment of having to pull out, and they’re saying, what can I do? How can I help? How can I join? How can I get my peers to join?” explain Sperduti. “Even if there are job losses, the union can still give us some protections that we need.”

Toyota’s future in Canada

Losing the construction of one of Toyota’s best-selling cars is obviously going to raise major concerns among plant workers, but the company’s ambiguity on the plant’s future was also raising alarm.

“They were not getting the answers that they wanted. Toyota was telling them there would be no job losses,” says Unifor Local 88 Organizing Committee Chair Barry Smith. “Toyota tells them how much they are part of the family, but won’t tell them any details.”

“From our experience when a plant such as the Toyota North Plant (Cambridge) that builds a main badge of the brand, that’s the highest seller and the highest volume, changes production, you can’t help but have job losses,” says Van Cleef.

Rumours have emerged that there will be more Toyota-owned Lexus cars built in Ontario, but that is not likely to be able to maintain the current 7500 to 8000 jobs at Toyota in Ontario.

“Lexus does not sell that kind of volume. Even if it’s a complicated, high-end, high margin product, which is what the company is saying is good for them, and I would agree with them on that, high margin is good for the company, but not for the workers or the community of Cambridge because it’s going to put people out of work,” says Van Cleef.

To put Lexus versus Corolla sales into perspective, in 2014, 339,498 Corollas were sold in the United States. All Lexus models only had combined sales of 174,235 cars in the U.S.

Organizing Toyota

Once again, the organizing drive is moving. Successful telephone townhalls were held that drew in over 600 workers – and that was just the start.

Organizing a non-union car plant is more important than ever. When Toyota and Honda first built manufacturing plants in Canada in the late 1980s, they were forced to offer comparable wages and benefits to the unionized Big Three U.S. automakers in Canada to attract talent. As automotive manufacturing shrank in Canada, concession deals cut at the Big Three had an effect on compensation at Honda and Toyota, where workers had no organization to fight it.

“If Big Three bargaining were to see reductions for workers somehow, Toyota will pass it on to their workers,” says Van Cleef. It’s a sobering reality that job losses or squeeze on wages and benefits could come from Toyota, the world’s largest automake made a profit of $18 billion USD during the last fiscal year – 19 percent higher than the year before.

“Right now there’s eight MOs (membership organizers), we are calling all the current card signers, and those that had signed cards that are now expired. We’re calling them at home, we’re e-mailing them, we’re meeting them at coffee shops. We’re just trying to get the last few cards signed,” says Barry Smith. “We’re just getting cards signed anywhere we can.”

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