Nissan Workers Cast Ballots as UAW Seeks Rare Election Victory

  • Union tapped Bernie Sanders to aid organizing push at plant
  • UAW hasn’t won representation vote in Mississippi since 1990

A work assembles a 2016 Nissan Motor Co. Altima mid-size vehicle at the company's North America manufacturing plant in Canton, Mississippi.

Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg

Auto workers at Nissan Motor Co.’s factory in Mississippi head to the polls this week to vote in the UAW’s uphill attempt to win its first representation election in the state since 1990.

The United Auto Workers, which has pushed to organize the Canton facility for more than a decade, on Thursday and Friday holds its first ever vote for workers to decide whether the union should represent them. The campaign leading up to balloting was bitter, with UAW President Dennis Williams accusing Nissan managers of intimidation and the company arguing unionization could hurt the facility’s global competitiveness.

“Nissan is saying that if you vote yes for the union, the future of the plant is at stake,’’ said Harley Shaiken, a University of California Berkeley labor professor. “This message of fear, plus lots of resources, can be very potent.’’

The vote is the culmination of a lengthy campaign by the UAW in the mostly non-unionized U.S. South. Representing Nissan workers at the facility would be a significant victory for the UAW, which has largely failed to organize Japanese, German or Korean automakers’ U.S. plants. The union hasn’t won a representation election in Mississippi since 1990, when it organized a unit of 67 employees at a legal services organization, according to National Labor Relations Board election data compiled by Bloomberg BNA.

Big Names

During the campaign, the union recruited Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders and the NAACP to argue that Nissan mistreats its predominantly black workforce by threatening to close the Canton plant or cut wages if the union wins. Similar allegations were made in a National Labor Relations Board complaint issued prior to the vote.

Bernie Sanders Joins Groups Urging Nissan to Stop Fighting UAW

Nissan denies intimidating workers. Rodney Francis, the plant’s human resources director, said would-be employees flock to Canton for its pay, benefits and safety record. The upward mobility the company offers didn’t exist in Canton before the company arrived in 2003, he said.

“We feel UAW representation in the plant could hurt our competitiveness,” Francis said. “Look at their track record of layoffs and strikes.”

A potential threat to the UAW’s cause emerged last week, when a U.S. federal grand jury indicted a former Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV executive and the widow of a UAW officer for taking millions of dollars from a union training fund.

“Detroit is the perfect example of the damage the United Auto Workers can do to automotive manufacturing,” Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant, who opposes the unionization effort, said in a statement.

‘On the Fence’

Nissan reported a 13 percent drop in quarterly operating profit last week. The biggest contributor to the decline was soaring marketing and selling expenses, as the company doles out higher incentives in the U.S. amid an industrywide slump. The U.S. is Nissan’s largest market, accounting for about 30 percent of its global deliveries.

The Nissan Canton plant’s 6,400 workers build Altima sedans, Titan and Frontier pickups, Murano sport utility vehicles and NV commercial vans. About half of the workers will be eligible for voting that concludes Friday night.

The UAW acknowledged in the lead-up to the vote that Nissan’s anti-union campaign may be succeeding.

“A lot of workers who were maybe on the fence could be taking these threats to heart,” Gary Casteel, the UAW’s secretary-treasurer, said in an interview. “At a certain point we did have a majority. But who knows where it’s going to wind up.”

— With assistance by Jie Ma

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