The limit to United Auto Workers President Bob King’s conciliatory charm offensive begins somewhere outside a town called Canton.
There, a union anxious to bolster its sagging dues base with the ranks of Nissan Motor Co.’s hourly workforce is mounting a campaign stretching from that small Mississippi town to Brazil, Paris, Tokyo and South Africa — all in an attempt to brand the Japanese automaker a violator of “international labor rights,” according to a report issued this week in Washington.
“Nissan is not living up to the standards of worker treatment enshrined in International Labor Standards core labor standards, U.N. human rights principles and other international norms,” Lance Compa, senior lecturer at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations, said in a statement under the banner “Look Under the Shine of Nissan.”
Neither the UAW nor its well-publicized organizing campaign in Canton is mentioned in the news release. But Compa’s 46-page report, funded by the union, is the latest manifestation of King’s vision to achieve a decidedly domestic goal with the help of international pressure and shame: organize foreign-owned automakers in the UAW’s patch.
“This UAW-commissioned report is neither objective nor credible and simply restates two-years’ worth of false allegations by the union,” Justin Saia, a spokesman for Nissan North America, said in a statement Wednesday. “Nissan has never violated labor standards and would never tolerate threats or intimidation of our employees. Nissan will continue to abide by U.S. labor laws and support the rights of employees to decide whether they wish to be represented by a union.”
The charges, denials and counter-charges are predictable in a situation where too often spin is loosely affiliated with fact. More important for the union is whether the decision to globalize confrontation, as the UAW is doing in its third run at unionizing Nissan in the right-to-work South, contradicts King’s message of the union as 21st-century problem solver and partner with management.
It does, which is little help to the union’s flagging growth prospects. How does the UAW engender a feel-good, we’re-here-to-help-you vibe in Canton when its organizers are touring the globe pressuring dealers, picketing Nissan facilities and issuing reports accusing the company of human rights violations?
How does internationalizing the case for Canton, where Nissan assembles about 450,000 vehicles per year, address whatever local issues there may be at the plant? For more than 75 years, UAW beefs with the automakers have been local or national affairs bargained — or not — free of global machinations that mean little outside the scope of the local economic conditions, the U.S. market or American labor law.
How does campaigning against a would-be employer, or using Germany’s IG Metall union to pressure Volkswagen AG into establishing German-style works councils in its Chattanooga, Tenn., plant, make a positive case for union representation?
This raises all sorts of issues for the union, its members and the UAW’s chances for wooing new ones. From Chattanooga to Canton, King is using scarce resources to enlist the help of international union brethren to do what the UAW’s organizers have repeatedly failed to do at foreign-owned automakers operating inside the United States.
Only now, their efforts are occurring in a new context that has moved beyond the post-war contract battles so familiar to Detroit’s auto communities. Now it is shaped by an epic collapse and historic transformation, the facts of which probably hurt the union’s organizing cause as much as they help.
Essentially, organizers are selling the benefits of membership to people who witnessed the embarrassment of congressional bailout hearings; heard about lost jobs and paying people not to work; tracked the federally induced bankruptcies of two Detroit automakers; and learned of contracts that instituted a lower tier of wages for new hires long before the global financial meltdown pushed Detroit and the UAW to the brink.
Whoever emerges victorious, the UAW’s campaign against Nissan is shaping up to be the automotive equivalent of a negative political campaign. That is, if the positive case isn’t strong enough for your side and what it can do for the voters, tear down the opponent with charges, truths and half-truths that appeals to a relative few.
“Workers’ descriptions of how they are treated behind the walls of the massive Nissan plant in Canton, Miss., affirm that Nissan is systematically interfering with the internationally recognized right to form a union,” Compa said. One worker, Jeff Moore, accuses managers of saying “unions make plants close.”
It’s far more complicated than that, as Detroit’s subsequent revival over the past five years attests. The challenge for the UAW is showing why.
Daniel Howes’ column runs Tuesdays, Thursdays and Friday.