UAW at a crossroads after unsuccessful Nissan election

Keith Laing
Detroit News Washington Bureau
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Labor observers are wondering what’s next for the United Auto Workers union after last week’s devastating defeat in organizing Nissan workers in Canton, Mississippi.

Nissan workers at the Japanese manufacturer’s Canton Assembly Plant voted nearly 2-to-1 against joining the labor union after a contentious campaign that emerged as the latest test of its ability to organize employees of foreign automakers in the South. 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 marked the third time in nearly 30 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.

The UAW has been unable to make any big gains beyond its Midwest base of factories owned by Detroit’s Big Three where the union has been established for decades.

“It’s not that they haven’t had some wins in the South, but they have really struggled to win over a big assembly plant,” said Kristin Dziczek, director of the Industry, Labor and Economics Group at the Center for Automotive Research.

Dziczek said continuing losses at foreign-owned auto plants in the South could weaken the bargaining power of UAW members at facilities owned by General Motors Co., Ford Motor Co. and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles.

“In order to retain bargaining strength, even among traditional (U.S.-based) employers, they have to represent a larger share of the industry,” she said. “That means that they have to organize at international firms. Until the UAW represents more international firms, they’re going to have problems with FCA, Ford and GM, because FCA, Ford and GM have to compete with those firms.”

The UAW has pointed to smaller wins in the South, such as skilled-trades workers who maintain machinery and robots at Volkswagen’s factory in Chattanooga that 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.

Arthur Wheaton, an automotive industry specialist at Cornell University’s Industrial and Labor Relations School, said the UAW could try to replicate its strategy of going smaller following its loss in Mississippi.

“I think it’s a little too soon to put a gravestone on their ability to organize down south,” he said. “I think more needs to be found out from the lawsuits and challenges. My guess is try a similar strategy like they did in Chattanooga with Volkswagen.”

On the bright side

Wheaton said there were positives for the UAW in the unsuccessful Nissan election, noting that prominent politicians like U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., came to their defense. He drew a contrast to the UAW’s experience in its first election in Tennessee when lawmakers weighed in against its bid to organize Volkswagen workers there.

Still, he said the UAW was always facing an uphill battle trying to organize workers in a region that is historically very hostile to unions.

“Being very much the underdog going into the election, I think they made a respectable showing,” he said. “The question for me is what happens to the (National Labor Relations Board) under the Trump administration. Do they push for right-to-work for the entire U.S.?”

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.

Wheaton said the Nissan workers will likely see benefits from the UAW’s push to organize their plant, even if they did not vote in favor of the effort. “Even in failure for the UAW, they’ll still have an impact for Nissan workers because they are not likely to cut their wages because they know the UAW could come back,” he said.

He expects the UAW wouldn’t have it any easier in convincing workers at Korean-owned plants that make cars for Hyundai and Kia to organize.

“I don’t see Hyundai and Kia cozying up to the UAW and saying ‘Come on in,’ ” he said. “They’re fighting their own Korean unions. They locate down south for a reason.”

Legal challenges

The UAW declined to comment Monday about its future plans beyond the legal challenges it has filed about the Nissan election. The union has framed the defeat at the Mississippi plant as a temporary setback.

“The courageous workers of Nissan, who fought tirelessly for union representation alongside community and civil-rights leaders, should be proud of their efforts to be represented by the UAW,” UAW President Dennis Williams said in a statement. “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 Friday night, the UAW filed seven 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. The labor board could order a re-do of the Mississippi Nissan election if it sides with the UAW.

“Despite claiming for years to be neutral on the question of a union, Nissan waged one of the most illegal and unethical anti-union campaigns that I’ve seen in my lifetime,” Gary Casteel, secretary-treasurer of the UAW and director of the international union’s transnational department, said in a statement after the legal challenges were filed.

Nissan has dismissed the UAW’s accusations of labor law violations as sour grapes that were part of a “desperate, last-minute attempt to undermine the integrity of the secret ballot voting process” from the union.

“With this vote, the voice of Nissan employees has been heard,” Nissan said.

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Twitter: @Keith_Laing

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