Cleveland, Ohio – Hoping to break a decades-long pattern of failing to organize plants run by foreign-owned automakers, the United Auto Workers have filed a petition with the National Labor Relations Board to form a union local at Nissan’s plant in Canton, Mississippi.
Opened in 2003, the Canton plant makes Frontier and Titan pickups, truck-based commercial vans, and the Murano crossover. The 6,400-worker plant, about an hour north of Mississippi’s capitol in Jackson, was the state’s first automotive production plant.
In trying to win support from workers in Mississippi, the union is using arguments that have failed at Nissan plants in Tennessee and at Toyota plants in Kentucky – that non-union shops have more workplace safety problems, lower wages, and fewer worker protections than union shops. Unique to the Nissan push is a racial element, with the union noting the strong African-American contingent of Nissan employees.
“Nissan spends hundreds of millions of dollars a year marketing itself as a socially responsible carmaker, even going so far as to brag about its appeal to African-American car-buyers,” said Rahmeel Nash, a Nissan technician who has worked at the Canton plant for 14 years. “But behind the scenes, the company is violating the labor rights of African-American workers who make those cars.”
Nissan officials say they don’t believe the company’s workers need union representation.
”The 6,400 Canton employees are a key part of the Nissan family, and we are proud to provide them good, stable, safe jobs with some of the best wages and benefits in Mississippi,” said Nissan spokesman Parul Bajaj. “While it is ultimately up to our employees who will represent them, we do not believe that UAW representation is in the best interest of Nissan Canton and its workers.”
The mention of top wages in Mississippi is no accident. Union organizers at Toyota’s massive plant in Georgetown, Kentucky, have argued for decades that poor work rules and safety conditions mean the workers there need a union. But Toyota’s wages are competitive with what union workers at Ford, General Motors, and FCA US earn, making it tough for the UAW to argue that workers would be better off financially with representation.
The union also criticized another business practices commonly used at Toyota, Honda, and Nissan plants – using staffing agencies to provide temporary workers instead of making full-time hires. Union leaders have argued that temp staffing distorts employment numbers, making the 50% of votes (plus one) target needed to organize a plant a moving target.
The UAW has tried and failed to organize Toyota, Nissan, and Honda plants since the early 1980s when Nissan began producing cars in Tennessee. But each vote has failed, and few recent ones have been close. The last major vote came in 2014 at Volkswagen’s plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee.
In that case, the company quietly supported the union under pressure from its German unions. UAW representatives were given access to workers to lobby for the union, and management statements were far more supportive of employees having a voice in plant decision making.
Political pressure in VW case was extreme, with Tennessee’s governor and other top lawmakers arguing against unionization and even threatening to pull state tax breaks if workers agreed to organize. The union lost the 2014 vote 53% to 47%.
In late 2014, VW agreed to recognize UAW chapter that represent fewer than half of the company’s workers, but those union locals don’t have the right to bargain collectively for changes to wages or work rules.
Nissan employees who petitioned the NLRB asked for a two-day vote from July 31, 2017, to Aug. 1. The board may set a different date.
About the author: Robert Schoenberger is the editor of Today's Motor Vehicles and a contributor to Today's Medical Developments and Aerospace Manufacturing and Design. He has written about the automotive industry for more than 17 years at The Plain Dealer in Cleveland, Ohio; The Courier-Journal in Louisville, Kentucky; and The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Mississippi.