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Toyota's new lobbyist strategy: factory workers

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Alesia Murdoch has spent 11 years building transmissions at the Toyota Motor Corp. plant in Buffalo, W.Va. Yesterday, she got a new job: lobbyist.

Murdoch was one of 23 U.S. employees of the Toyota City, Japan-based carmaker to visit lawmakers’ offices in advance of congressional hearings into millions of vehicles recalled for sudden acceleration.

She said she and her fellow employees wanted to remind lawmakers that while Toyota is Japanese-owned, many of the workers affected by the recalls and inquiries are American.

“We stand behind our products,” she said between stops. “We may have had a little setback, but we’re going to come out stronger.”

Toyota, the world’s largest automaker, has recalled almost 8 million vehicles on five continents to repair defects linked to unintended acceleration. At least three U.S. congressional committees plan hearings into whether the recalls were handled properly by Toyota and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Failing to address the issues more swiftly has led to global criticism, a member of Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama’s cabinet said Wednesday. “This might not have resulted in Japan-bashing and Toyota-bashing” with quicker action, Mizuho Fukushima, the minister in charge of consumer affairs, said in an interview in Tokyo.

The automaker sent people from eight states with company plants to Washington and covered their expenses, said Martha Voss, a company spokeswoman. The visits were timed to be a day ahead of the first hearing, which was scheduled for Wednesday and then postponed to Feb. 24 because of a snowstorm. Some employees said they hoped to return then.

The message was “how important we think our product is and how much we back our product,” said Joe Allen of Dunbar, W.Va., who also works in Toyota’s Buffalo, W.Va., plant.

Congress is “really hearing from local people,” said Amy Lindsey, who works in the company’s factory in Princeton, Ind. “They’re not hearing from management.”

Toyota employs 33,400 people in the U.S. and accounts for an additional 163,700 jobs at suppliers and dealers, according to the company’s Web site.

One of those suppliers, Kariya, Japan-based Toyota Boshoku Corp., employs 7,000 U.S. workers, according to the company’s Web site.

Mitzi Lucas of Stanford, Ky., an assistant quality manager at Toyota Boshoku’s plant in Harrodsburg, Ky., said the recall controversy is being “blown way out of proportion.” Employees drive Toyotas, including some on the recall list, and “I wouldn’t be afraid to drive one,” she said.

“Congress needs to look at all the jobs Toyota supplies and look at all the suppliers as well,” she said. “When the economy was bad, we kept right on working even when others didn’t.”

The crisis-spawned calls on lawmakers follow a surge in spending that has made Toyota one of the auto industry’s biggest lobbyists in Washington.

In 1999, the company spent $685,684 on Washington lobbying, Senate disclosure documents show. Last year, Toyota spent $5.2 million, more than seven times the 1999 amount, and passed one of the big three U.S. automakers, Chrysler Group LLC, for the first time.

“Toyota learned the lobbying game swiftly and ahead of most other non-U.S. carmakers,” said Rogan Kersh, associate dean of New York University’s Wagner School of Public Service. “They’ve spent resources strategically, hired the right kinds of people and have been able at least to gain a hearing when they have questions or concerns about legislation or proposed regulations.”

The company bolstered its Washington team last week by hiring the Glover Park Group, a public relations, crisis management and lobbying firm headed by several former officials in Democratic President Bill Clinton’s administration.

The $5.2 million spent last year by Toyota to influence Congress and federal agencies exceeded the $3.8 million spent by Auburn Hills, Mich.-based Chrysler. Toyota also outspent Japan-based automakers Nissan Motor Co. of Yokohama and Honda Motor Co. of Tokyo.

“We have a lot of work to do to make sure we are effectively communicating what the company and our dealers are doing regarding the recalls, and emphasize that the company is doing everything it can to fix any safety issues as quickly as possible,” Voss said.

Detroit-based GM, the second-biggest automaker, spent $8.6 million last year, and Dearborn, Michigan-based Ford Motor Co. spent $7 million. Toyota is accelerating its spending at a faster clip, with an increase of almost 660 percent since 1999, compared with GM’s 48 percent and Ford’s 67 percent.

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