| June 8
June 8 A Nissan Motor Co plant deep in
the American South has emerged as a proving ground for the
United Auto Workers' new model to turn around three decades of
failure to unionize foreign auto plants on U.S. soil.
In the last half year, the UAW has quietly contacted Nissan
workers at the Japanese automaker's plant in Canton,
Mississippi, near the state capital of Jackson. The effort was
revealed this week by union officials, state politicians and
civil rights leaders.
It is the first time since UAW President Bob King announced
in 2010 a new push to organize Japanese, German and Korean auto
plants that the UAW has publicly set sights on a specific
King said Nissan has held "captive audience" meetings for
months designed to scare Canton workers and disparage the union,
which is seeking to organize the plant's roughly 3,000
manufacturing workers. He and other union supporters described
the meetings as a violation of worker civil rights and called on
Nissan to allow the union to make its pitch directly to plant
"Fear and intimidation should not be part of the equation
when workers are deciding whether they want to be represented by
the union," King said. "Workers should be able to hear equally
from both sides and make a decision for themselves."
Nissan spokesman David Reuter said the company respects
worker rights to organize and its reputation stands in "sharp
contrast" to the UAW's description. He said Nissan has raised
the topic of unions with workers over the past month, but
disputed King's characterization of the meetings.
King has said the UAW has no future if it fails to organize
foreign auto assembly factories in the United States. It is a
battle that the UAW has lost at almost every turn since the
1980s. The failure to win new auto plant members has compounded
a crunch on the UAW's finances.
In interviews set up by the UAW, two Nissan workers at the
Canton plant told Reuters that they want a stronger voice in how
workers are compensated.
Many workers at the plant are under the impression that they
could lose their jobs if the plant is organized, said the
workers and Derrick Johnson, president of the Mississippi NAACP.
Workers also pointed to the unpredictability of their work
"It's about you having a voice, having a right to choose and
being at the bargaining table when they make a decision about
your benefits," said Betty Jones, 44, a technician.
Jones said she felt as if she was being "brainwashed" in
meetings with plant managers about the UAW. "It would make me
feel so much better" if Nissan allowed workers to vote on a
union, she said.
Analysts said the union would be smart to rally workers
around issues like having a voice in the workplace because high
wages and ample pension plans that were once enjoyed by UAW
members have been eroded.
"By reinventing themselves as a civil rights movement -
that's the right way to go," said Gary Chaison, professor of
industrial relations at Clark University in Massachusetts. The
UAW can say, 'We can give you something that is very important
and that's a voice in the workplace. For workers who are seldom
asked what they want, that means an awful lot."
AN UPHILL BATTLE
Nissan began making vehicles in Canton in May 2003. The $1.4
billion plant makes five models, including the best-selling
Altima mid-size sedan, and can make 400,000 vehicles a year. The
plant began building the 2013 Altima this week.
In 2005 and 2007, the UAW failed to muster the necessary
support from workers in Canton required by U.S. labor law to
hold an election, Reuter said.
"We know there's been a lot of misinformation being
communicated on the outside," Reuter said. "We know the UAW has
been attempting to engage our employees at their houses and in
the local community, and we want to make sure our employees had
our version of the facts as well."
Nissan has prepared a presentation for workers on the UAW's
history that touches on its full history but concentrates on the
reasons for the decline of UAW membership over the last decade.
"We're giving them factual information about the history of
the UAW and the lack of success that they have had with their
employees and with the companies that they've represented,"
But King is eager to show a new UAW has emerged from past
practices that helped submarine the dominance of Detroit's auto
manufacturers and that the union is a better partner with
management. He points to the union's labor contracts with
General Motors Co, Ford Motor Co and Chrysler Group
LLC as evidence of the UAW's new flexibility.
King's organizing push is founded on the belief that if car
companies refrain from actively opposing a UAW organizing push,
workers will enthusiastically join the union. After given access
to workers at auto parts supplier Dana Holding Corp,
workers approved union membership in 2007, including a plant in
Kentucky that had overwhelmingly voted the union down four years
"We can't be a meaningful union, we cannot do the job our
members at Ford, GM and Chrysler deserve if we don't organize
the total industry," King said last month during an interview
with Reuters in New York.
Historically, plants in the American South have been hostile
to unions. In 2001, workers at Nissan's plant in Smyrna,
Tennessee rejected UAW representation two-to-one.
Mississippi Governor Ken Bryant last year said he would step
in if the UAW tried to organize a plant in the state.
"I just don't think that now is the time to try to unionize
any of these organizations," he told Reuters in an interview
late last year when he was governor-elect.