Nissan accused of snooping in labor’s fight for South

Josh Eidelson
Bloomberg News

Automakers have battled hard to keep organized labor from gaining traction in the U.S. South. Mostly, they’ve won — as Nissan Motor Co. did when workers at its Mississippi plant voted in August against joining a union. But the Japanese company has been accused of fighting dirty.

In Mississippi, Nissan carried out illegal surveillance of employees for years and used the findings to rate them on a scale of union-friendliness, the United Auto Workers said in an amended complaint filed Sept. 19 with the National Labor Relations Board.

The carmaker said it abides by all labor laws. The filing is “another attempt by the UAW to ignore the voices of Nissan employees who chose to reject representation by a nearly 2-to-1 margin,” spokesman Brian Brockman said in an email. He didn’t directly address whether the company had a rating system.

Organizing foreign-owned plants in the South is critical for the UAW, which represented 1.5 million workers at its peak in 1979. Its membership today is about a third of that size, after a series of defeats like the one in Mississippi.

UAW complaints about Nissan’s conduct date back to well before the bitterly contested August vote in Mississippi. Some charges have been pursued by the government’s National Labor Relations Board, whose regional director accused the company of labor law violations including threatening to fire employees for union activity; and warning that the whole plant could shut down if the vote went the union’s way. Nissan denied any wrongdoing.

In its latest filing, the UAW presented the board with what it describes as evidence of Nissan’s rating system. The union said the document, obtained by Bloomberg News under the Freedom of Information Act, shows files kept on employees. It includes comments such as “has talked with solicitors at the gate before a shift” and “has been seen hanging with pro-union technicians.”

Eric Hearn, who’s been there since 2012, said in an interview that he confronted his supervisor before the vote, and asked whether Nissan was rating employees on their union stance. He said the supervisor answered that he was “quite sure” it was. That bothered Hearn, and he showed up at a company event soon afterward in a T-shirt that read, “I am not a -2,” a reference to the rating he’d heard was assigned to the most pro-union workers.

Hearn said that when he and other pro-union employees gathered at the plant’s entrance to sign up their colleagues, they’d frequently notice that they were being observed by management and security staff who wouldn’t normally have been there. That had a chilling effect on other workers, he said: “They wouldn’t even look at you.”

Calvin Ealy, a former supervisor who said he was fired by Nissan in 2013, said in an interview that at the request of company officials, he provided information about how the people under his supervision were likely to vote. “I knew at the time it was wrong — I considered it to be spying but hey, I needed a job, to take care of my family,” he said.

“Allegations of threats or intimidation made by the union are false,” Nissan’s Brockman said. He described labor-board charges such as those made by the UAW as “a common tactic in an organizing campaign.”

Management-side attorney and former Labor Board member Marshall Babson said there’s no law stopping companies from keeping track of what their managers have happened to observe about employee attitudes toward unionizing, he said.

The key legal questions, said Babson, are whether the company did anything illegal to get the information, and whether anything illegal was done with it. Federal law restricts companies from rewarding or punishing employees based on their union stance; from having managers go out of their way to observe union activity, and from creating the impression among employees that union activism is subject to surveillance or retaliation.