UAW defeated in bid to organize Nissan workers in South

Keith Laing

The United Auto Workers suffered a major defeat when Nissan workers in Canton, Mississippi, voted overwhelmingly against joining the labor union after a contentious campaign that emerged as the latest test of the labor union’s ability to organize employees of foreign automakers in the South.

Nissan said employees at its Canton Vehicle Assembly Plant voted “no” by a nearly 2-to-1 margin, striking another high-profile defeat for the UAW in a region where it has struggled to convince autoworkers of the merits of labor unions. The Japanese manufacturer said 2,244 of its Canton workers voted no, while 1,307 cast ballots in favor of joining the UAW.

The defeat marks the third time in nearly 20 years that Nissan workers in the South have voted against joining the UAW. Workers at Nissan’s Smyrna, Tennessee, plant voted against joining the UAW by 2-to-1 margins in 1989 and 2001.

Nissan said the victory over the UAW was a sign of the strength of non-unionized factories in the South.

“With this vote, the voice of Nissan employees has been heard. They have rejected the UAW and chosen to self-represent, continuing the direct relationship they enjoy with the company,” the company said in a statement released late Friday night. “Our expectation is that the UAW will respect and abide by their decision and cease their efforts to divide our Nissan family. Now that the election is complete, Nissan will focus on bringing all employees back together as one team, building great vehicles and writing our next chapter in Mississippi.”

The UAW said late Friday: “The result of the election was a setback for these workers, the UAW and working Americans everywhere, but in no way should it be considered a defeat.”

Shortly before voting closed at 8 p.m. Eastern time Friday, the UAW filed seven new claims that Nissan broke federal labor law. The National Labor Relations Board will consider the charges and could add them to a series of allegations in a complaint the federal labor regulator has issued against Nissan.

“Perhaps recognizing they couldn’t keep their workers from joining our union based on the facts, Nissan and its anti-worker allies ran a vicious campaign against its own workforce that was comprised of intense scare tactics, misinformation and intimidation,” the UAW said.

Among the charges, the UAW alleges widespread surveillance of worker union activity, threats that benefits would be taken away if the Nissan Canton workforce voted for UAW representation, threatening a worker that she could be terminated if the UAW was to become the representative of Nissan worker and that Nissan provided a faulty list of worker contact information. Nissan spokeswoman Parul Bajaj says the company provided all required information. She didn’t immediately respond to the other charges.

If the labor board rules in favor of the charges, the board could order the election to be repeated. Such a decision could be months or years away.

The last days of the campaign were conducted as news spread of the indictments of two former Fiat Chrysler executives and the widow of a former union leader on charges that they allegedly participated in funneling for their personal enrichment more than $2 million in UAW-Chrysler National Training Center funds intended for worker training.

Nissan posted news stories about the indictments on its local employee website and Facebook page, and talked about the union’s legal troubles in presentations to workers.

The company argued that the UAW has a track record of layoffs, strikes and plant closures at plants where it represents auto workers that would alter dynamics at the company’s 14-year-old Mississippi plant.

The UAW and its supporters accused Nissan of seeking to block efforts to unionize by its workers in Mississippi, in violation of federal labor protections. They cited allegations from employees about receiving pressure from supervisors to vote “no” on unionization since the petition for the election was filed July 11.

The allegations of financial misdeeds couldn’t have come at a worse time for the labor union. Indictments handed down last week charge Monica Morgan-Holiefield, 54, of Harrison Township; Alphons Iacobelli, 57, of Rochester Hills; and Jerome Durden, 61, of Rochester Hills with siphoning training center funds to pay for personal expenses and travel in violation of the Labor Management Relations Act.

The union election in Mississippi was closely watched as a sign of the UAW’s vitality outside of the midwestern hub of the Detroit Three automakers.

Despite its two previous failures at Nissan, the UAW has experienced recent successes in smaller elections in the South. Skilled-trades workers who maintain machinery and robots at Volkswagen’s factory in Chattanooga voted for UAW representation by a margin of 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.

Nissan says 6,400 are employed at the Canton plant, which builds Altimas, Frontiers, Muranos, Titans and NV commercial vans. The UAW says senior Nissan workers there 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.

Kristin Dziczek, director of the Industry, Labor and Economics Group at the Center for Automotive Research, said union elections do not usually turn on hourly wages.

“People don’t vote for a union because they are going to get a couple bucks,” she said. “They really do it because they feel like they are being treated unfairly at work.”

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Twitter: @Keith_Laing

Staff Writer Jim Lynch contributed.