Auto workers' union rolls
the dice at Nissan's Mississippi plant
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[August 03, 2017]
By Nick Carey
CANTON, Miss. (Reuters) - For nearly a
decade, the United Auto Workers union has tried to organize workers at
Nissan Motor Co Ltd's assembly plant here, challenging the company's
wages, safety record and commitment to treating African-American workers
Starting Thursday, the roughly 4,000 workers at one of Mississippi's
largest industrial employers will cast their votes, affecting not only
their own futures but the union's as well.
Another failure to organize a southern auto factory would leave the UAW
weakened ahead of contract negotiations with the Detroit Three
automakers in 2019, when many analysts forecast U.S. auto sales will be
in a cyclical slump.
The organizing vote, which the UAW called for last month, has divided
workers at the Canton plant, which builds Nissan Murano sport utility
vehicles, commercial vans and Titan and Frontier pickup trucks.
Pro-union workers said the plant has a record of poor safety and
complain that the company moved to a 401(k) defined contribution plan
from a traditional plan.
"This is not about wages, I'm concerned about safety issues at the plant
and about my pension," says Patricia Ruffian, 51. "They say if we vote
for the union we're going to have nothing, we have to start from
scratch, and that's not true."
The UAW also claims Nissan has illegally threatened workers that if they
vote for the union, the plant will close. Based on those claims, the
U.S. National Labor Relations Board has issued a number of complaints
that Nissan has made that threat a number of times in recent years. The
automaker denies the allegations. The outcome of the election could be
contested, leading to a test of how the Trump-era NLRB will handle
contentious labor issues.
Rodney Francis, director of Human Resources at Nissan's Canton plant,
said, "Labor rights are about the right to organize, or not to organize.
All we've been doing is providing employees with the facts so they can
make an informed decision and at the end of the day this is about what
Nissan has strong supporters on the factory floor, who point to the
history of problems at Detroit's unionized automakers and reject the
UAW's arguments that black workers are not treated fairly.
"Black people are doing much better here since Nissan came," said Tony
Jacobson, 52, who is black. He has worked at the plant since it opened
in 2003 and makes $28 per hour - comparable to the top rate for
unionized workers at General Motors Co <GM.N> or Ford Motor Co <F.N>.
"I'm trying to save our livelihoods, I don't want Canton to be like
The UAW, like other large industrial unions, has struggled to expand
membership as manufacturers have moved jobs overseas or to states like
Mississippi that allow workers to shun union membership even in union
The union has organized smaller auto suppliers in the U.S. south, but
has failed for decades to organize all the workers at a major southern
auto-assembly plant. Politicians in the region have used low
unionization as a selling point to attract more manufacturing
"If the union wins, it will encourage other in the South to unionize,"
Vanderbilt University labor analyst Daniel Cornfield said. "If the
company wins, it will make it more difficult for the UAW to organize
elsewhere in the South."
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Nissan worker Tony Jacobson shows off an anti-union t-shirt outside
the automaker's plant in Canton, Mississippi, U.S., July 31, 2017.
Photo taken July 31, 2017. REUTERS/Nick Carey
'CHANGED THE LANDSCAPE'
Scott Waller, president of the Mississippi Economic Council (MEC), the
state's chamber of commerce, says Nissan has "changed the landscape" in
Mississippi. Nissan was the first automaker to locate a major assembly
plant in the state, but since Mississippi won the contest for the
factory in 2000, it has secured significant investments by other
automotive giants like Toyota Motor Corp and Continental AG.
The number of auto workers in the state rose to 18,000 in 2016, from
11,000 in 2010. Government statistics show the average Mississippi auto
worker earned $50,510 in 2016, 34 percent above the state average.
A vote for union representation at Nissan's Canton plant "could affect
that plant's ability to compete and Mississippi's ability to compete in
the realm of economic development," Waller said.
Workers at Nissan's Canton plant earn less in total hourly wages and
benefits than workers at unionized auto plants in the United States. See
The union has connected the pay issue to its argument that Nissan is
undermining progress on civil rights.
"There's a huge race issue there, there's an issue of civil rights and
the history of Mississippi plays into that narrative," UAW
Secretary-Treasurer Gary Casteel said in an interview.
Dolphus Weary, co-chair of community organization Move Mississippi
Forward and a long-term black campaigner for racial unity, said he
doesn't see it that way. He recounts visiting a manufacturing plant in
the 1960s where the only black workers were janitors.
When he visited Nissan's Canton plant, Weary says "my antenna were up
looking for the same situation" but instead he found a plant where 46
percent of the managers were black.
"This is the new Mississippi," Weary says of the plant. "I don't think
old arguments from 50 years ago will help move us forward."
But Reverend Isiac Jackson, pastor of the Liberty Missionary Baptist
Church in Canton, said management at Nissan's plant has worked to
prevent employees from voting on union representation, which is
reminiscent of the time when Mississippi's leaders tried to prevent
black citizens from voting.
"Now just let everybody vote," he said. "And if they vote against a
union then everybody will go about their business."
(Reporting By Nick Carey; Editing by Nick Zieminski)
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