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Focus: Manufacturing

Feature Article from Our Manufacturing Subject Area - See All

From SCDigest's On-Target E-Magazine

- Oct. 8, 2013 -

Supply Chain News: United Autoworkers Last Stand at Mississippi Nissan Factory an Inflection Point in Union Fate


UAW Focus is Less on Workers than External Opinion and Pressure; Protests at Dealerships in Brazil


SCDigest Editorial Staff

For decades, Michigan and other Rust-Belt states in the Midwest dominated US automobile production. In the past 20 years, new factories, especially but not exclusively from foreign OEMs, have largely gone south, to right to work states such as South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama and Texas that do not have strong union traditions - and not one of these transplants has become unionized.

That has been the source of endless frustration for union forces.

Now, the united Auto Workers (UAW) is throwing out the old playbook to organize the Nissan factory in Canton, Mississippi, using totally new techniques to pressure Nissan management to accept a union. If the effort succeeds, it may spread to other plants and rejuvenate the flagging US labor movement. If it fails, it may be viewed as the UAW's last stand.

SCDigest Says:


The Chattanooga factory is the only one of Volkswagen's 62 plants worldwide that isn't unionized.

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Traditional union drives focus on convincing factory workers to vote for a union in a secret ballot election. Not at the Nissan plant - the UAW is taking the fight to almost everyone but the workers.

According to an article this week in the New York Times, the UAW has mobilized thousands of union members in Brazil to picket Nissan dealerships there as the company prepares to co-sponsor the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. It has deployed a team of Mississippi ministers and workers to South Africa, where Nissan has an assembly plant, to try to tarnish the company's images through accusations that it violates workers' rights at the Canton plant.

In the US, the UAW has hired actor Danny Glover to speak at colleges across the South and recruit students to distribute union fliers at Nissan dealerships. The union was also involved in the creation of a group of students and community leaders called the "Mississippi Alliance for Fairness at Nissan," including support from the NAACP, to also help take the message the broader community. The alliance often uses the slogan that "Labor Rights Are Civil Rights."

There are somewhat similar campaigns at Volkswagen's new plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee and the Mercedes-Benz plant in Vance, Alabama, under the active leadership of UAW president Bob King.

But none is as intense as the campaign at the Nissan plant in Canton, where clearly the effort is more about pressuring Nissan from the outside than winning hearts and minds on the inside of the factory that produces some 450,000 cars each year.

The UAW's King, for example, says that unions in Japan, Germany, Australia and Britain are backing the Mississippi fight, and that "That kind of global pressure on them, as a labor rights violator, will make a big difference. There are outrageous violations of the workers' right to organize."

The global nature of the campaign is perhaps what is most noteworthy. Do union forces in Brazil really care about the unionization effort in Mississippi? Apparently so.

The president of Brazil's giant General Workers Union told the Times that "We're not going to stop until they have a union inside the plant in Mississippi" when it comes from protesting at Nissan dealers on the country.

This new strategy comes after virtual complete failure in organizing any of the foreign assembly plants in the US. At another Nissan plant in Smyrna, Tennessee, workers in 2001 voted two to one against joining the UAW, a huge embarrassment for the union. If this latest gambit fails, the UAW may have to write off the Southern auto plants for a long time.

"It's a life-and-death matter for the UAW to succeed in the South," Nelson Lichtenstein, a professor and labor historian at the University of California, Santa Barbara told the Times. "That's why they've put their best organizers into this campaign."

(Manufacturing Article Continued Below)



One challenge: the auto plants in the South pay comparable hourly wages to most unionized factories in the Midwest and elsewhere, with bases wages at the Nissan plant of $23.22 per hour plus generous benefits.

But the non-union plants have much fewer work rules to contend with and can make decisions that impact the shop floor with little opposition, arguably making them much more competitive than rule-heavy unionized facilities. Many workers may understand that dynamic, especially when viewed from a less historically union-centric perspective found in the South.

There are about 5200 workers at the 10-year old Canton plant. While there are clearly some union supporters, there is also a high percentage of anti-union employees, some wearing T-shirts saying, "If you want a union, move to Detroit."

Some note the plant did not layoff any workers during the 2008-09 recession.

Additionally, there is a deep appreciation in cities such as Canton and the South generally that these transplant factories brought jobs and a level of prosperity to many struggling areas of the region. The factories also spawn "supplier parks" of auto parts vendors near the factories to support just-in-time deliveries.

But there may be signs of growing dissatisfaction among workers there on the status quo. Perhaps chief among those is growing use of lower paid temporary workers that some say have pushed full-time workers to off shifts. Others say Nissan doesn't listen to worker ideas and issues like it used to.

The campaign at the Volkswagen plant in Tennessee - just a couple of years old - has some oddities of its own. The powerful IG Metall union in Germany is putting pressure on the company to recognize the union even without a worker vote. The Chattanooga factory is the only one of Volkswagen's 62 plants worldwide that isn't unionized.

Volkswagen has recently said it would cooperate with the UAW to form a workers council at the facility. Such councils, common in Germany, usually include blue-collar and white-collar employees. They may or may not be legal in the US without a union.

The outcome of these UAW efforts are still far from certain. If they succeed, it is almost certain that the unorthodox tactics will spread to not only other Southern automotive plants, but likely other industries as well.

If it fails, the UAW will have to look hard for new ideas, as union membership in the private sector continues to fall.

What do you think of the UAW's new tact? Will it succeed?
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