Toyota no longer following the Toyota Way

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The following column by Toyota team member Ken Cleveland appeared in the Waterloo Region Record on April 4, 2014.

By Ken Cleveland

Much of what attracted me to a job at Toyota 17 years ago — besides good pay, benefits and a pension, of course — was that the company had a reputation for listening to its employees and working with them on issues facing the plant.

It was known as the Toyota Way, the company's unique system of production in which all employees were encouraged to look for efficiencies and cost savings that would benefit the company.

All companies say they believe in that sort of thing, but Toyota seemed to put real meat behind it by giving all workers the right to slow or even stop production to present one of their ideas. That was proof that our voices were recognized and our contributions were respected, and it meant a lot.

We aren't even called workers or employees, but team members. Being called a team member means something to me, even though the team approach has been missing for a long time.

When I started, we could make simple changes and improvements, and if we made a mistake nobody ever blamed you — you were just trying to do your job. That attitude encouraged innovation and original thinking, things that have made Toyota so successful.

Now, if something goes wrong, there is an atmosphere of who to blame, and we are not even allowed to make even basic changes without getting approval from management — most of whom have less knowledge and experience than we do.

Toyota has boosted production speeds, increased the cost of health benefits, increased the length of time it takes for contract workers to reach the top pay rate, and killed the defined benefit pension plan for new hires, to mention just a few of the changes that have been made.

I am voting for Unifor to give me and my co-workers back a voice in the workplace and to preserve the best parts of the Toyota Way.

In that way, then, because the Toyota Way has been a big part of the company's success, having a union at Toyota will ultimately benefit the company.

I have been part of this union organizing drive since nearly the beginning. I am excited about joining Unifor (created in a 2013 merger of the Canadian Auto Workers union and the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union of Canada) because it shares the same values of creating a positive and productive workplace.

To achieve that, Toyota team members need a say in our working conditions — particularly around health and safety, hours of work and work rules. Currently this is dictated entirely by Toyota.

Toyota team members have concerns that are not being addressed. Team members are looking for fairness and a voice at work. It's not a question of salary — it's about being able to negotiate a contract that meets the needs of team members. As Unifor members, all team members will have a say in what our collective agreement includes, and all of us will get to vote on whether to accept it.

Recent comments by company spokesperson Greig Mordue show just how far the company has strayed from the Toyota Way. He questions, for instance, why we'd want to pay dues, saying this would just take money out of our pockets. In fact, joining Unifor will give us our much-need voice and a collective agreement setting out the rules of work so the company can no longer arbitrarily take things away.

Cutting the pension for new hires, boosting benefits costs, and the lower pay and no benefits for contracts workers have taken much more out of the pockets of Toyota team members. Union dues are a good investment to protect against any further cuts and improve on what we have.

It's no coincidence that the first union cards were printed by team members themselves on the back of Toyota's human resources bulletins about the latest arbitrary change.

The message was clear: We need a voice again. We need a union.