Worker sues Honda for safety firing

By Jeff Ditz

Tonya Blair tries to do the right thing and she doesn’t give up easily. A mother of two, the mid-Ohio native was nineteen when she hired into Honda of Americas Marysville Auto Plant. Her plan was to make a career out of working for Honda. It was a company that paid well and promised to be loyal to hard-working employees. Tonya was willing. She figured she would work at Honda until she was forty-nine, raise her children and have a good, healthy, retirement.

After twelve years and several work related surgeries at Honda Tonya was fired.

Returning to work after a respiratory infection the company "safety staff" assigned her to work on a job for which she had permanent medical restrictions. "Just try the job," said the "safety staff" person. Tonya chose not to "try" working with carpet and insulation that she, her doctors, and her employer all knew she was allergic to. A few days later a Honda Administration person phoned her at home to say she was fired.

Honda "safety" policy is to use up workers, fight their Workers Compensation claims, and then separate them from employment. Over the past twenty years in Ohio Honda has injured thousands of workers. Tonya Blair chose to fight back. One year after the discharge Tonya filed a "wrongful discharge" suit against the company. The company, the lawsuit charged, could not fire her for not working on a dangerous job.

The Company

Honda was the first of the Japanese automakers to build manufacturing facilities in the United States. The Marysville Auto Plant, built on a swamp thirty miles northwest of Columbus, went into production in 1982. The nearby auto assembly plant at East Liberty opened in 1989. The company, which also has an engine plant and a transmission plant in the state, now employs 13,000 in Ohio, with another 3,500 working at manufacturing facilities in Alabama, North Carolina and South Carolina. By late 2004 Honda will have the capacity to build 1.4 million vehicles a year in North America.

Working the engine line

Honda pay and benefits are the highest manufacturing wages within driving distance of its plants. With the highest per car profits in the industry the automaker pays a Big Three type wage and benefits package and constantly tells workers in meetings and on its in-house cable television system, that Honda is a more viable company than Ford, General Motors or Chrysler. The company promises lifetime loyalty, a family atmosphere, and a workplace where the worker is listened to and valued.

In mid-Ohio, hiring into Honda is "hitting the lottery".

"The Power of Dreams"

Jobs are tough to find, good paying ones even tougher. Everyone who "makes it" into Honda feels lucky. They were the few from hundreds of applicants who got hired. They made it through a battery of interviews, tests and group interactions designed to find workers who fit the system and to weed out potential union supporters.

An orientation week greets new hires. Here they learn that working at Honda is "living the dream". Along with the good wage there will be respect. This is a different kind of company. Never a layoff. Everyone is equal.

New hires are told of working in teams, of "town meetings" and "voluntary improvement programs". Any worker can voice any concerns they have to management, even to the highest levels of management.

Everyone in the company wears the same white uniform with their names embroidered in red enforcing an illusion that everyone is respected equally at Honda.

Once on the line it doesn’t take a new hire long to notice that not every one is equal. One out of every five or so workers is a "temp", temporarily at Honda but actually employed by the subcontractor Adecco, a temporary services company. The temps do the same jobs as Honda workers for half the pay and no benefits.

If an Adecco "temp" makes it two years at Honda they may get interviewed for a regular job. Or not.

And they may be able to come back to work another two years as a temp at Honda if they first leave for thirty days. Or not.

Honda’s claim of "no layoffs in twenty years and just look at the big three …" rests on the temps. Less work, less temps. More work, more temps. Squeezing more profits, more temps fewer new-hires.

But for a while to the new Honda worker the paycheck looks great and Honda sounds real good. It’s the power of Honda dreams. But then there’s Honda reality.

The Reality

Dan Lowe, a Honda worker through seven years of assembly line work and several surgeries, is a body builder and military veteran. "It takes a couple of years for the lies to wear off," says Lowe. "Then they get hurt. Or some coordinator screws ‘em over. Then they come to me and I ask them ‘Who’s been telling you all along the truth about this place?’ Then they want to do something, after Honda shows them the dream is a lie."

The time between cars on the Honda assembly line is 54 seconds each one of which is used for work. The stress of such intense and fast work is a health hazard causing severe physical and emotional health problems. The intensity turns strong, young workers into fodder for local carpal tunnel clinics.

Ray Castle has been at Honda for twelve years. He says, "I was 24, young and naive, when I hired in. The woman who trained me on my first job at Honda was being moved to a different job after being hurt on that job and I thought, ‘I’m a man, I’m tough, I won’t get hurt.’

"Eight months later my right hand was in terrible pain. I had trigger finger. I found out later that I was the eighth person in three years to be hurt on that job. Honda knew that but didn’t tell me. I was told later that the company thought it was cheaper to pay for the surgeries than fix the problem.

"I got my surgery on a Friday morning and was back to work the next Monday even though the doctor said I should take six weeks off. The company gave me an occurrence for getting the surgery they had approved."

Honda workers are hurt because, as Castle learned, the company has decided it’s cheaper to pay for avoidable surgeries than it is to design work safely. Honda takes healthy young people, uses up their physical abilities, and then tosses them aside.

Honda, and the other "lean production" manufacturers, under-staff the factory employing too few workers to accommodate the vacation, sick leave, funeral and other days that workers take off. Workers are assigned to "teams", workgroups of twelve to eighteen run by a "team leader" (a position similar to traditional foreman). Relief workers are rare so absences often mean co-workers have to work harder to make up for their missing co-worker. Restricted workers are unwelcome in workgroups because they won’t be able to rotate through the tougher jobs.

The "loyalty culture" which Honda began pushing in orientation process comes to full bloom here as loyalty to Honda’s bottom line. Front line managers, team leaders and coordinators, reinforce Honda loyalty with arbitrary policies and the much repeated idea that missing workers are slackers or disloyal. The absent or injured workers, not corporate understaffing of the shop floor, are why work is harder if everyone doesn’t have "perfect attendance".

The Honda safety system does not fix a poorly designed job when it is hurting workers. It doesn’t accommodate the workers it hurts. The Honda safety system brings peer pressure against injured workers. Tonya Blair got stuck in the Honda system.

General Duty Clause

Every worker in the United States is entitled to a workplace safe from known hazards. That’s what the law has said for thirty years. Every employer must provide that "safe and healthful" workplace.

Honda stands squarely opposed to the general duty clause.

The Honda Handbook given to all workers says that workers, not the company, are responsible for safety.

For it’s "safety trainings" Honda uses the consultant Dupont which promotes the false science of behavior based safety. The core message from Dupont is that "accidents" in the workplace are caused by human error more than 90% of the time. Workplace safety experts around the world, fifty years ago, repudiated the insurance company studies Dupont relies upon and adopted a protocol called the "hierarchy of controls". The hierarchy shows safety managers that poor workplace design and unsafe materials must be improved to reduce illnesses and injuries.

Honda safety staff is untrained in safety matters. It is actually not a safety staff with the expertise and authority to improve safety but a part of management that places people back into jobs after injuries. Stories like Ray Castle’s of a work process hurting people over and over again are common. Thousands of injured workers have been re-assigned by Honda to the job that hurt them.

Honda of America Manufacturing violates federal workplace safety laws and regulations daily. It’s a policy. Honda is an un-indicted corporate criminal.

The legal case

Employment law says workers are not to be fired for discriminatory reasons – race, gender and so on depending on state law – but can be fired for no reason because they are employed "at the will" of both the employer and themselves. Either can break the relationship "at will" meaning you can be fired for no reason at all.

The most important exception to "employment at will" is the "just cause" clause in union contracts. Most unionized workers are protected from arbitrary firings by negotiated contract clauses limiting the employer to only firing workers when they can show "just cause" that the person should lose their job.

Public policy can also create an exception to the at will doctrine.

Tonya’s lawsuit asserted that Ohio’s public policy placing responsibility for workplace safety on employers creates an exception to "employment at will". If Ohio employers must provide a safe workplace, then Honda cannot fire Tonya for refusing to work a job that she and the company both know is unsafe for her. It wouldn’t matter if the job is safe for others. Honda workers in general, and specific Honda workers – like Tonya – have the right to a safe job.

In the court

During questioning of prospective jurors, more than half of the three-dozen citizens in the jury pool claimed some association with the company. A vast majority raised their hands when the judge asked if Americans are too litigious.

One prospective juror, a Honda supervisor, repeatedly leaned forward eager to participate in the questioning.

"The attendance policy is cut and dried," he said. "I know that policy, I can be fair enforcing it." He responds to a series of questions with answers that make clear his Honda eagerness to participate and his pre-conceived notion of his role in the trial. With his last answer he finally convinces even himself that he cannot be fair and asks to be excused.

One elderly juror wore overalls and high rubber boots to the courtroom each day and only one had ever worked in a factory.

This was the second time that Tonya’s case came before Judge Richard Parritt. The first time he dismissed it without hearing the facts. The state appeals court ruled that it had to go to trial. The appeals court also stated that Honda violated its own attendance policy; that is, Tonya should have been granted excused time instead of being fired for the absences at the end of her employment.

The last day Tonya worked

When Tonya returned to work from her respiratory infection in the winter of 1999 she reported to the Medical Department as required. She was told to wait in the West Cafeteria for safety representative Rick Clark. When Clark showed up he told Tonya to follow him. As they walked into the plant Tonya asked where she’d be working.

"In-panel," said Clark. It was Honda shorthand for Instrument Panel Subassembly where Tonya had worked before. She told Clark that she was allergic to materials in that area and that she had permanent restrictions on file.

The Honda safety representative replied, "It’s the only job I have for you today."

Arriving in the work area Tonya explained her medical problems with the In-Panel area to the coordinator. The coordinator called Doug Bigler, a Project Leader and Clark’s supervisor, while Clark went "to try to look into the restrictions."

Bigler arrived on the scene and told Tonya In-Panel was the only job he was offering.

Tonya asked, "Why are you putting me in an area we know is a problem?"

"Because I am," replied Bigler.

Clark never returned to the work area. Later Tonya spotted him in the cafeteria where he told her, "You had restrictions, they expired."

Clark testified that he offered Tonya gloves for a problem that affected her by touch and breathing. He told her "Why don’t you just try it."

When asked if he understood Tonya’s permanent restrictions as meaning working there would be bad for her health, Clark responded, "Not really. I felt comfortable putting her there … I didn’t feel she’d get sick."

Clark, Bigler and the other company witnesses testified that they can not take a workers word on health problems. That would mean a non-medical person making a medical decision, explained one Honda witness. However, none of the Honda people making the decisions about Tonya’s health were medically trained.

The jury returned its verdict and went home. No damage award for Tonya. Snow was falling in Marysville that Friday evening. Maybe it was just time to go home. The jury understood that Honda had an unmet duty to provide a safe workplace, that it’s policies were confusing, and that it’s attacks on Tonya’s character were irrelevant. But they thought that Tonya, twelve years in the Honda system, should have known that system and played it better that last day she was in the plant.

But the Honda system is more than a confusing set of rules designed to create deniability for specific actions by the company. The Honda system is a just-in-time or lean production system producing the highest per vehicle profits in the industry by also producing what is probably the highest per vehicle injury and illness rate in the industry.

In the end that system got Tonya Blair.

Jeff Ditz The author, a member of the SEMCOSH staff, worked for a year as a UAW organizer at the Honda plants in Marysville and Anna, Ohio.