Nissan ramps up anti-union push
Workers at 450,000-vehicle Mississippi plant to vote in August
CANTON, Miss. — The United Auto Workers faces a strong anti-union campaign from Nissan Motor Co. as it tries to gain a foothold in the union-averse South by organizing workers at the Japanese automaker’s Mississippi plant.
As many as 4,000 workers will vote Aug. 3 and Aug. 4 at the vehicle assembly plant in Canton, just north of Jackson. The union promises it will help negotiate better working conditions, benefits and wages at the plant. However, managers warn that the union will ultimately hurt both the company and the workers.
Union supporters tried to pressure Nissan for years into staying neutral, or at least toning down its antiunion stance. But managers, while saying workers get to decide, are pushing against the United Auto Workers. The company is broadcasting anti-union videos inside the plant, and the union says supervisors are pulling workers into private meetings to gauge union support and persuade workers against unionizing.
The United Auto Workers has tried to bolster support among the majority black workforce by linking union support to civil rights, but even union supporters admit management’s message is causing some pro-union workers to waver.
“People who were for the union are now undecided,” said Shanta Butler, a union supporter.
The stakes are high. The union has never organized an entire foreign-owned auto plant in the South, although it did win an election among maintenance technicians at a Volkswagen AG plant in Chattanooga, Tenn. Foreign automakers came South in part to avoid unions, and most benefit from lower labor costs.
Workers at Nissan’s plant in Smyrna, Tenn., rejected the union in 1989 and 2001 votes,
but this is the first election in Canton. Though unions have struggled to crack Southern auto plants owned by foreign companies, unions have prevailed nationwide in 65 percent of elections from October through June, National Labor Relations Board figures show.
The top Nissan executive in Canton appeared in the first video urging rejection of the United Auto Workers barely a day after the union announced that it had filed a petition with the labor board to hold the election.
“We know the union will make promises it can’t keep to get you to vote for the UAW,” Marsh said in a recorded video message to workers.
“But when you see the UAW’s empty promises for what they really are, and get the complete facts, the choice
Anti-union messages from managers aren’t unusual in labor elections, but the pressure can be very uncomfortable for workers.
“It is often very tense,” said Vanderbilt University sociologist Dan Cornfield, who has studied unions.
“It’s tense because both sides feel a lot is riding on it for them.”
United Auto Workers Secretary-Treasurer Gary Casteel said the union’s goal is to help wavering union supporters “have enough fortitude” to stick with the union in the face of anti-union messages. Nissan contends the union history of strikes and other actions have caused economic losses for workers and automakers; Nissan maintains its workers already have good pay and benefits.
“I’ve never seen a more aggressive campaign,” Casteel said in a phone interview. “I’ve seen a lot as aggressive.”
Casteel called management’s efforts “intimidation,” but Nissan spokesman Parul Bajaj rejected that description. Managers have said they’re giving workers the facts about the auto union.
“Nissan respects and values the Canton workforce, and our history reflects that we recognize the employees’ rights to decide for themselves whether or not to have third-party representation,” Bajaj said.
The union hasn’t alleged any new violations of federal labor law. Following earlier United Auto Workers allegations, the National Labor Relations Board charged, among other things, that managers illegally questioned workers and threatened to close the plant if it unionized. That legal case is unresolved.
The 14-year-old plant is where Frontier and Titan pickups, Murano SUVs and NV vans are assembled. Its annual capacity of 450,000 vehicles is about 8 percent of all Nissan
vehicles made worldwide last year.
United Auto Workers supporters have protested against Nissan’s opposition to the union around the world, especially in France. The French government owns nearly 20 percent of the Renault Group, Nissan’s business partner. Carlos Ghosn, Renault Nissan Alliance chairman, told French lawmakers in 2016 that the alliance “has no tradition of not cooperating with unions.”
Casteel said the union may raise Nissan’s opposition with French officials, often much more sympathetic to organized labor than their American counterparts.
It’s unlikely pressure on Mississippi workers will lessen before they vote.
“They always say the same old things and they always do the same old things,” Casteel said.
“The reason they do them is because they work.”
Pickup frames are suspended on the assembly line at the Nissan Canton Vehicle Assembly Plant in Canton, Miss., in April 2016. An employee vote at the plant on United Auto Worker representation is set for Aug. 3 and Aug. 4.