I Make Cars for a Living. I Can’t Afford to Buy One.
Toyota workers in Kentucky are waging a historic union campaign against one of the largest non-union carmakers.
By Katie Nixdorf, More Perfect Union
When Toyota came to Georgetown, Kentucky in 1986, it was hailed as an economic powerhouse that would provide thousands of good-paying jobs. For many years it did just that.
“We was able to go out, purchase a house, actually drive a new car,” Jeff Allen, who started working at Toyota in 1994, told More Perfect Union when we visited Georgetown last month to talk to workers about why they’re organizing. “It was a lot more financial freedom.”
On top of good wages, workers enjoyed free health insurance, guaranteed 12 percent annual bonuses, and lucrative perks like free car giveaways.
But all of those benefits—many of which were used as evidence for why workers didn't need a union—have since disappeared.
Now, a job at Toyota is far from enough to provide for a family of four. “My fiancé and my two daughters are on Medicaid,” said Greg Williams, a Toyota worker for four years. “I don't like being on government benefits and working for one of the biggest companies in the world.”
The most recent union organizing drive at Toyota was in 2017, and just like the ones before, it died out before getting to an NLRB vote. But Toyota workers were inspired to try organizing once more after witnessing the gains won last year by the United Auto Workers (UAW) at Ford, GM, and Stellantis, as well as the Teamsters at UPS.
Toyota is one of the 13 non-union auto manufacturers that the UAW is targeting in its massive campaign to organize 150,000 autoworkers. The UAW wants to have 70 percent of workers at each plant sign authorization cards signaling they’d like to unionize before it calls for an NLRB election. So far, the campaign at Toyota is in the early stages with fewer than 30 percent of authorization cards signed since it began in November.
A key obstacle is the sheer size of the plant. Roughly 8,000 union-eligible workers are spread across a 1,300-acre facility. The two auto plants where workers have hit the 30 percent milestone—Volkswagen in Chatanooga, Tennessee, and Mercedes-Benz in Vance, Alabama—are each about half the size of Toyota’s Georgetown facility.
Workers are also up against anti-union rhetoric from Toyota’s management. “Outsiders are coming into our community to talk about what they think is best for Toyota team members,” Kerry Creech, the president of Toyota’s Georgetown plant, said in a recent op-ed. “Labor organizations promise big increases when times are good, but they have no proven ability to secure stable employment through industry challenges.”
In some states, political leaders are standing behind automakers waging anti-union campaigns. “The Alabama model for economic success is under attack,” Alabama Governor Kay Ivey wrote in an op-ed posted to a state-run website after the UAW announced that 30 percent of Mercedes-Benz workers had signed authorization cards. “These are out-of-state special interest groups, and their special interests do not include Alabama or the men and women earning a career in Alabama’s automotive industry.”
But the UAW has allies as well, including President Joe Biden, who backed the Big Three strike by appearing on the picket line with striking workers. Biden appeared at the union’s national conference on Wednesday and received its formal endorsement. “The fact is you transformed the entire auto industry that’s not yet unionized,” Biden said. “Because of you, workers across the country have seen the largest wage increases for workers building cars and trucks and any other transportation equipment in nearly 30 years.”
Biden has previously encouraged non-union workers to join the UAW. “You have a right to form a union, and you cannot be stopped,” he said in an interview with More Perfect Union. “You cannot be intimidated.”
But workers are indeed facing illegal coercion and harassment from management, the union says. Last month, the UAW filed unfair labor practice charges against Volkswagen, Honda, and Hyundai for threatening and intimidating workers involved in union activity.
Despite the backlash, workers at Toyota expressed newfound confidence in their campaign. “A lot of times people got gung ho at the beginning, but then after like a month or two, they're like, ‘Oh, it ain’t gonna happen’ and then they gave up,” said Allen. “This time the energy’s different.”
Watch our new video report on Toyota workers in Kentucky here: