Column: Third time’s a charm for UAW?

F. Vincent Vernuccio

There they go again! The United Auto Workers announced a third attempt to unionize a Nissan plant last week. Workers at the Canton, Mississippi, plant will vote on Aug. 3-4. The first two attempts to organize Nissan workers at a plant in Smyrna, Tenn., didn’t go well for the UAW. Nissan workers voted in 1989 and 2001 to reject the union by a 2 to 1 ratio. A loss in Mississippi would add to the embarrassments for the UAW in the South.

In 2014, the union failed in its attempt to unionize Passat workers at a Chattanooga, Tenn., factory, in spite of owner Volkswagen supporting the union. In the end the UAW was only able to organize a small group of maintenance workers at VW, and that highly questionable carve out may be overturned in court.

If the vote loses, the UAW will likely blame the company. Thankfully, Nissan is ignoring slings and arrows and protecting its employees’ right to a private ballot. Workers can vote the way they want without it being held over their heads by colleagues and others after the fact. In the past, the UAW has tried pressuring companies to agree to something called “card check,” a public petition process which opened up workers who might not want union representation to undue pressure and intimidation.

The UAW is spending big on recruitment, but it isn’t getting a great return on investment, especially in the South where auto plants are sources of good-paying jobs. According to an analysis of UAW financial records submitted to the Department of Labor by LaborUnionReport.com, the union spent almost $8,136,000 on organizing, or $1,100 for each of the 7,324 new members gained last year. And many of those jobs may have been the result of current unionized employers simply staffing up.

In the Mississippi campaign the UAW isn’t insisting that all workers must be members or pay the union. But the law isn’t on the union’s side here. Mississippi has long been a right-to-work state, meaning unions can’t get workers fired if they aren’t willing to pay dues. After fighting right-to-work and losing in Michigan and many other places, the UAW now grudgingly embraces it and uses it as a selling point.

Even with this opportunistic embrace of worker freedom, the UAW doesn’t make it easy for members to get out. It has pressured members to stay and pay dues, shaming them as “free riders” if they don’t. Employees at Nissan may think nothing will happen if they say “OK, fine,” but the union won’t see it that way, as we’ve seen with many real-world examples.

By voting yes workers may be inviting harassment if they are not willing to pay up. Many southern autoworkers already know this and think they can do better on their own. This is likely why the UAW has had such a hard time infiltrating south of the Mason-Dixon line.

The union’s recent rocky record outside of Detroit may be why at a press conference on July 20, UAW President Dennis Williams hedged when asked about his confidence in victory. But there is good reason to question the actual support at the plant for unionization. The UAW refuses to release how many workers signed cards asking for an election. Only 30 percent are needed to trigger an election. The union reps may claim to be “very confident” now, but they’ve said similar words before past defeats, over and over again.

F. Vincent Vernuccio is a senior fellow at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy.