UAW hopeful in 3rd bid to unionize Nissan factory

Keith Laing
Detroit News Washington Bureau

The United Auto Workers union is expressing confidence in its ability to sway Nissan workers in Mississippi as it prepares to take a third swing at organizing the carmaker’s workers in the South.

An Aug. 3-4 election at the Nissan Canton Vehicle Assembly Plant will follow two previous failures by the UAW to represent workers at Nissan’s plant in Smyrna, Tennessee.

UAW President Dennis Williams, who met Thursday with members of the news media at the union’s headquarters in Detroit, said he feels strongly that if the vote were held today it would pass. But he cautioned that “any campaign you do is an ongoing evaluation.”

“Any time you organize, it’s very, very difficult in the United States, especially with the fact companies try to win on the basis of fear,” Williams said. “And it’s hard for employees to get over fear. That’s the toughest thing in an organizing drive.”

Auto industry observers say the UAW has a tough fight ahead in a region typically hostile to labor groups. But the union says the push for a vote to join the UAW has come mostly from workers at Nissan’s 14-year-old plant in Canton, Mississippi. Workers there have cited a pattern of labor abuses by the Japanese automaker against the plant’s predominantly African-American workforce, including threatening to close the facility if they decide to unionize.

“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, in a statement released by the UAW. “But behind the scenes, the company is violating the labor rights of African-American workers who make those cars.”

Nissan makes 450,000 Altimas, Frontiers, Muranos, Titans and NV commercial vans annually at the Canton plant, which the company says has 6,400 workers.

Mississippi is a right-to-work state with laws prohibiting agreements between employees and labor unions that mandate all employees pay union dues. Michigan passed such a measure in late 2012 that went into effect in March 2013.

The UAW and its supporters have accused Nissan of seeking to block efforts to unionize by its workers in Mississippi, in violation of federal labor protections. They cite allegations from employees about receiving pressure from supervisors to vote “no” on unionization since the petition for the election was filed July 11. That pressure has come in the form of one-on-one meetings and videos that have been broadcast in the plant, they said.

“When we speak out to demand basic protections, Nissan threatens and harasses us,” said McRay Johnson, a technician in the Canton plant who has been there for five years. “Employees need and deserve representation in the workplace.”

Williams said Nissan’s Canton workers have “a lot of issues, not only health and safety, the whole issue of seniority provisions, protection that you have in the workplace.”

He continued, “They need not only better wages, secure wages and benefits. Where employers just can’t at a stroke of a pen take away your pension or take away your health care, or say ‘OK, we’re going to give you health care but you’re going to pay $1,200 a month for it.’ That’s having a real voice, having a contract.”

The UAW said it plans to submit a new round of unfair labor practice charges against Nissan to the National Labor Relations Board.

Nissan denied allegations of intimidating its workers in Mississippi, and said its Canton factory has a safety record “significantly better” than the national average. The company has argued there is not sufficient interest among its workforce in joining the UAW, pointing out that efforts to unionize at its Smyrna plant failed in 1989 and 2001. Workers there rejected UAW representation by 2-to-1 margins in both elections.

“The 6,400 Canton employees are a key part of the Nissan family, and they enjoy good, stable, safe jobs with some of the best wages and benefits in Mississippi,” Nissan spokesman Brian Bockman said in a statement. “We do not believe that UAW representation is in the best interest of Nissan Canton and the people who work here. However, it is ultimately up to the employees to decide.”

‘I know all about union’

Workers who oppose unionization paint a different picture of conditions at the plant than the union’s supporters.

“Nissan Canton isn’t perfect, but I think we have a pretty good company we’re working for with a good group of people,” said Christina Doss, a production technician who has worked at the plant since it opened. “Anything that needs to be done, we could work it out ourselves. I don’t see a need for an outside mediator to come in.”

Doss said she has received calls from UAW members and had union representatives visit her house. But she is not convinced that joining the union would make life better for herself or her co-workers. “I just don’t see a need for it,” she said.

Mickey Fugitt, a tool-and-die technician who was a member of the Teamsters union at a previous job, agreed. Fugitt said he plans to vote “no.”

“I’ve been in a union before, I know all about the union,” Fugitt said. “I’m definitely not going to join. I don’t care if they bring it in or not. I have paid all the dues I am going to pay.”

The UAW says Nissan workers at the Canton plant earn $26 per hour, while former temporary workers who are brought into the company through Nissan’s “Pathways” program earn $20 after five years. Temporary workers who have not been classified as full-time start at around $13 per hour, the union said.

Wages for UAW members at General Motors Co., Ford Motor Co. and Fiat Chrysler NV plants start at $17 per hour for new “second-tier” hires, but can go as high as $29 after eight years on the job.

Southern incentives

Michelle Krebs, executive analyst for Autotrader, said the UAW is likely going to have a tough fight as it tries to make inroads at plants outside of the Detroit automakers’ orbits.

“It’s been a futile effort so far,” she said. “I understand why the UAW has to try, but clearly automakers have put plants in the South to get far away from the UAW.”

Kristin Dziczek, director of the Industry, Labor and Economics Group at the Center for Automotive Research, said: “Mississippi is not known to be a pro-union state, and this is their third bite at the apple with Nissan. They’re using different tactics, working around the community and with religious organizations and taking on a civil rights case, so it’s not a bunch of people from Detroit coming down and telling them with what to do.”

She said the UAW has been able to pick up a number of automotive parts suppliers in the South. And it

’s had some success targeting smaller groups within auto plants.

Skilled-trades workers who maintain machinery and robots at Volkswagen’s factory in Chattanooga voted for UAW representation 108-44 in a 2015 election. That vote took place 20 months after the union was narrowly defeated in an election involving all hourly employees.

Southern states have offered incentives worth an average of $94,466 per job to foreign automakers since 2000, along with the promise of operating in a right-to-work environment with lots of cheap land, Dziczek said. By comparison, she said states in the North and Midwest have offered incentives worth $58,414 per job.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics said the average weekly earnings of union workers in 2016 was $1,004, while non-union members averaged $802. The difference in wages reflects a variety of influences, including variations in occupation, industry, company size and geographic region.

Dziczek added workers usually do not vote to join unions for extra money alone.

“Workers don’t stick their neck out for a union if they are looking for an extra buck,” she said. “It’s rarely about money. It’s usually when people think there is something unfair about their work environment.”

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Twitter: @Keith_Laing

Staff writer Melissa Burden contributed.