UAW steps up organizing effort at Nissan

June 12, 2012
UAW steps up organizing effort at Nissan
Union raises issue of racial bias in pay rates at different plants
By BRYCE G. HOFFMAN AND CHRISTINE TIERNEY / The Detroit News
The United Auto Workers is stepping up its effort to organize Nissan Motor Co., taking the unusual step of playing workers at the company’s factory in Canton, Miss., against their higher-paid counterparts at the company’s plant in Smyrna, Tenn.

The UAW has been holding meetings with small groups of Nissan workers in Mississippi since the end of last year, when The Detroit News first reported that union leaders had picked the Japanese automaker as the target of their much-publicized campaign to organize a foreign car company on U.S. soil.

In these discussions, union organizers have been pointing out that Nissan workers in Mississippi make about $1.50 an hour less than their counterparts at Nissan’s factory in Tennessee. They have also been pointing out that most of the workers in Tennessee are white, while most of the Nissan workers in Mississippi are black. Organizers are accusing the automaker of racial bias and telling workers the only way to fight it is to organize.

It’s a charge Nissan denies, but it is winning the UAW a powerful ally. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People has joined the union in criticizing Nissan for what it says are attempts to intimidate Canton workers.

“The NAACP is here because we support the right of workers to have a voice in their company,” Derrick Johnson, president of the Mississippi branch of the civil rights group, said in a statement provided by the UAW. “Nissan should stop intimidating the workers who are simply asking for a fair process.”

Nissan says it is fair to all its workers.

“Nissan’s wages and benefits are competitive, and Nissan has never laid off a single employee in the nearly 30 years it’s had manufacturing operations in the U.S.,” said spokesman David Reuter. “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 would like to paint of Nissan.”

It is unclear just how many Nissan workers actually are asking for the union’s help. The UAW has tried repeatedly to organize Japan’s third-largest automaker, and it has never come close to building enough support to force the company to recognize the union.

Analysts doubt this time will be any different.

The approximately $25 an hour that the average Nissan worker in Mississippi makes may be $1.50 an hour less than the average Nissan worker in Tennessee earns, but it is nearly $10 an hour more than most industrial workers in Mississippi make.

“That’s not enough of an issue to overcome an ingrained anti-union sentiment in much of the South,” said Aaron Bragman of IHS Automotive. “They’re still making some of the best wages around.”

UAW President Bob King was not available to discuss the organizing strategy Monday, but he has accused the company of pressuring workers to turn their backs on his union.

“Workers have had to endure months of meetings during work time where they only hear the employer’s anti-union views,” King said in a statement sent to The News on Monday.

“Nissan holds these ‘captive audience’ meetings every day, in plantwide meetings, small-group meetings and one-on-one meetings. At these meetings, company management tries to scare workers about unionization, interrogates them about their support for the union and tries to convince them not to support a union.”

The informational meetings the company has held with employees are nothing new, according to Reuter.

“We continuously and routinely meet with our employees to openly discuss matters pertinent to our business. These meetings take place all the time and at all of our facilities, and they are an important part of interacting with our employees to ensure direct, two-way communication,” he said.

“This approach to employee relations has been very successful, resulting in a healthy and positive work environment that encourages the free exchange of ideas.”

The UAW is desperate to find ways to expand its membership rolls, which have diminished dramatically over the past several decades. King and other union leaders have said organizing foreign automakers’ factories in the United States is the best way to do that.

But convincing workers at companies like Nissan to sign up has proved a real challenge.

“The way the Japanese have managed their workers, there’s no demonstrable advantage for those people to join the union,” said Warren Browne, vice president of strategy for AutomotiveCompass LLC.

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