Nissan emerges as likely UAW organizing focus

December 8, 2011

Nissan emerges as likely UAW organizing focus

Union not naming a target yet but ramps up criticism of automaker

/ The Detroit News

As the United Auto Workers ramps up efforts to organize foreign-owned auto factories in the United States, union leaders say they have decided not to name a target — at least not publicly.

But a source told The Detroit News that members of the UAW’s executive board voted Tuesday night to focus those efforts on Nissan Motor Co. And UAW President Bob King came out swinging Wednesday, accusing the Japanese automaker of unspecified human rights violations at its factories in Tennessee and Mississippi.

“We have had some productive discussions with top leaders at Nissan,” King said in an interview with the Associated Press. “We’re continuing that. We’re hoping that issues can be resolved with them.”

Nissan said King had not contacted anyone in its North American operations, and called King’s allegations baseless.

“Mr. King’s attempts to disparage Nissan are without merit. Over the last 28 years, Nissan’s U.S. manufacturing operations have built a hard-earned reputation for job growth, quality, efficiency, paying competitive wages and benefits, and fostering a positive work environment,” Nissan Vice President David Reuter told The News.

“Our sales and market share growth, our work force additions and our financial success have greatly benefited the communities where we do business. Our results and our reputation in the communities where we operate speak for themselves, and they contrast sharply with the image that the UAW is now trying to paint of Nissan.”

This would not be the first time that the UAW and King have targeted Nissan.

Earlier efforts to organize Nissan workers failed miserably, including an effort to sign up workers at the company’s assembly plant in Smyrna, Tenn., that King personally spearheaded. It represented his biggest defeat as a labor organizer.

“The UAW’s attempts at organizing our facilities are not new to Nissan, and we will respect the rights of our employees to decide whether to organize,” Reuter said. “However, each time the UAW has conducted a campaign that led to a union election at our Smyrna assembly plant, employees voted overwhelmingly against organizing.”

Using the big guns

But labor expert Harley Shaiken — a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, who has advised the UAW in the past — said this time could be different.

“The overall state of the economy has raised issues for all autoworkers. Before, Nissan was still relatively new in the United States. Grievances can build up over time,” he said.

“With many organizing drives, previous failures lay the basis for future success. We don’t know that’s going to happen at Nissan, but the fact that they’ve failed at Nissan twice in the past doesn’t mean they will fail this time around.”

Significantly, the UAW is committing far greater resources to this organizing effort, Shaiken added. He said the union has also brought in some of the labor movements biggest guns — including Richard Bensinger, the former organizing director of the AFL-CIO.

Nissan is the sixth-largest automaker, with just over 8 percent of the U.S. market. It employs approximately 7,500 workers at its assembly plants in Smyrna and in Canton, Miss., and at an engine and transmission factory in Decherd, Tenn.

Its relationship to Tennessee is important for two reasons. First, there already is a UAW-represented work force at GM’s assembly plant in Spring Hill, Tenn. Second, Tennessee is home to the UAW’s arch-nemesis, Republican Sen. Bob Corker, who emerged as a vocal critic of the union during the 2009 hearings on the American auto industry.

But Shaiken said the UAW’s strategy could still change, at least until the union publicly names a target.

“Many things can still change, absent a formal public announcement,” he said. “It could be any one of the transplants.”

The reason the UAW has not yet named a formal target is because King wants to keep his options open.

Volkswagen AG has also been a focus of the UAW’s organizing efforts. It was assumed to be more receptive to the UAW’s overtures because IG Metall, the powerful German union, shares oversight of the automaker and had expressed sympathy for King’s desire to organize workers at VW’s new factory in Chattanooga, Tenn. But the debt crisis in the eurozone now has German autoworkers more concerned about preserving their own jobs.

Feeling the heat

Many in the auto industry had thought the UAW would target South Korea’s Hyundai Motor Co. Last week, the union even held protests outside Hyundai dealerships across the United States.

But Hyundai is enjoying some of the strongest growth of any automaker today.

The company is hiring, and its U.S. workers are raking in the overtime. None of that augurs well for the union’s organizing efforts.

What is clear is that the UAW needs to establish a beachhead at one of the transplants if it is to have any hope of recovering from the decades of declining membership that now threaten its financial viability.

The UAW’s membership has fallen to just over 376,000 members, about one-quarter of what it was at the peak in 1979. Membership rose 6 percent last year, the first increase since 2004.

“If we don’t organize these transnationals, I don’t think there’s a long-term future for the UAW, I really don’t,” King said in a speech at the union’s legislative conference in January.

At the time, he said he expected to pick a target within three months.

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