Causes of the union defeat at Nissan

August 8, 2017

Joe Richard analyzes an intense organizing drive that came up short in Mississippi.

AFTER YEARS of a local presence in Canton, Mississippi, and a ramped-up public organizing campaign since last March, the United Auto Workers (UAW) was soundly defeated in last weekend's union representation election at the giant Nissan assembly plant.

Turnout was high, and over 60 percent of the 3,700 or so eligible workers voted against union representation, dealing the UAW another blow in its drive to unionize "transplant" automakers in the U.S. like Nissan, Volkswagen, BMW and Toyota.

This bitter defeat will add to the urgent debate about what it will take to organize the unorganized in the South--and what unions can do to achieve a different outcome.

By all accounts, the employer's opposition was overwhelming. "Captive audience meetings"--in which managers and foremen took workers aside, either one on one or in a group--took place repeatedly. In them, company representatives plainly insinuated that Nissan would shut down or move if the union won representation rights.

Organizers involved in the campaign described a war-zone-like atmosphere across Madison County (of which Canton is the county seat) where the company created an environment rife with fear and uncertainty about the future if the UAW was victorious. This despite the fact that every one of Nissan's plants around the world is unionized, except the three operated in the U.S. (the other two are located in Tennessee).

On the march in Mississippi in support of the UAW unionization campaign
On the march in Mississippi in support of the UAW unionization campaign (UAW)

Bianca Cunningham, a Communications Workers of America staff organizer and member of the Democratic Socialists of America in New York City, who traveled to Canton this month to work on the UAW campaign, described the intensity of the atmosphere of intimidation.

For the last week before the vote, for example, the song "Road to Destruction" was broadcast on repeat over the factory p.a. system for entire shifts. Like the company's other tactics, the aim, said Cunningham, was to "instill this chaos and fear and uncertainty. It was really playing on people's emotions and insecurities, which I really feel is disgusting, even for a corporate anti-union campaign."

NISSAN TAPPED its political connections across the state and region to deploy a chorus of politicians calling for the UAW's defeat. Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant has been outspoken about his opposition to unionization and predicted publicly that a UAW win would destroy manufacturing in Mississippi.

Days before the vote, Bryant uploaded an image of a destroyed factory on his Facebook page and wrote, "I hope the employees at Nissan Canton understand what the UAW will do to your factory and town. Just ask Detroit. Vote no on the union."

Speaking a week before the vote at the Neshoba County Fair, Bryant--who has repeatedly attacked Bernie Sanders for his left-wing politics and endorsement of the UAW campaign--was sure to mix together a noxious dose of red-baiting and anti-Semitism when referencing the campaign: "I don't think we need a union to come in there and tell us how to make a better automobile. They can get back on the Bernie Sanders bus and go back to New York, and I'll pay their way."

There was also an anti-union worker committee, calling itself Nissan Technicians for Truth and Jobs, active within the plant in the months leading up to the election. A well-operated Facebook page posted regular updates with information attacking the UAW, and videos of anti-union workers speaking against the union and giving voice to their fears.

In a particularly cynical move, the committee produced and distributed t-shirts for the children of Nissan workers, emblazoned with the words: "Save My Daddy's Job. Vote No."

The local media were also overwhelmingly opposed to the union drive. The Madison County Journal wrote: "The UAW accuses Nissan of intimidation and harassment but offers up no proof. On the other hand, we have reports of UAW runts running across the county bothering homeowners trying to peddle their lies...The most disgusting piece of misinformation being perpetrated directly and indirectly by the UAW is that what we have here in Madison County is a civil rights issue. Trying to turn this into a race war and conjure up images of Mississippi Burning to fund their existence is nauseating."

Employers associations like the Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers entered the fray, and so did Americans for Prosperity, the political wing of the Koch Brothers' empire, with its Mississippi chapter sending 25,000 mailers to homes across the area saying "Tell UAW 'No Thanks'," along with radio, billboard and internet ad buys.

It's no surprise that the National Labor Relations Board cited Nissan for multiple unfair labor practices in the week before the vote. But this proved to be too little, too late. Union supporters are doubtless in mourning right now, and will be working to think through their next steps.

NISSAN CHOSE to locate its plant in rural Mississippi because of the enormous tax breaks offered by the state government, totaling hundreds of millions of dollars.

But it was also in search of a pool of cheap, exploitable labor, consciously setting itself up as a paternalistic employer and job creator in an economically devastated region. As of the 2010 census, per capita annual income in Canton totaled only $15,192, with more than 31 percent of the population living below the federal poverty line.

The vast majority of workers in the plant are African American, and Nissan represents a chance at the best-paying job available to workers in the area. Technicians hit top pay at over $22 an hour, significantly more than comparable manufacturing work in Mississippi, and also higher than top pay for lower-tier workers at the UAW-represented Big Three automakers: Ford, GM and Fiat Chrysler.

Nissan also maintained a policy of offering generous terms to plant workers to lease brand new cars as they rolled off the assembly line, with costs deducted from their paychecks. The company threatened to cancel this policy during the ramped-up union drive.

As Kim Barber, a technician at the plant told the New York Times, "Most of us just have a high school education. I'm almost 50. I can't go anywhere else."

The mile-long Nissan plant in Canton also employs several thousand temp workers, who the UAW did not seek to represent in this election.

The UAW did make much of its historic connections with the civil rights movement in the South, popularizing the slogan that "labor rights are civil rights," highlighting the anti-discrimination clauses in UAW collective bargaining agreements, and circulating leaflets describing the resources the UAW put at the disposal of Dr. Martin Luther King and others.

The union also mobilized significant community support from local and national African American organizations and faith groups, from the NAACP to local churches. Actor Danny Glover brought star power to the campaign, working for years to publicize the cause of the Nissan union drive.

But the company's position as paternalistic job creator and its blatant threats to withdraw from the community and devastate thousands of households undercut the union's appeal among a significant swath of Black workers inside the plant.

Tony Jacobson, a 52-year-old worker active in the anti-union committee, currently making $28 an hour, told Reuters on the day before the election: "Black people are doing much better here since Nissan came. I'm trying to save our livelihoods, I don't want Canton to be like Detroit."

The company deftly promoted the profiles and testimony of Black employees opposed to the union campaign, and the anti-union committee in the plant broadcast its opposition--adding to the anti-union rhetoric of a nearly united political class of Mississippi.

AT THE same, it must be said that the UAW made some missteps in the Canton campaign, and it still struggles with a troubled legacy at the Big Three automakers.

Only days before the election, news broke of a damning corruption scandal involving the wife of a top UAW official, who allegedly received over $1.2 million of gifts and payouts from a Fiat Chrysler executive. The allegations cover a number of years when the late UAW Vice President General Holiefield and Alphons Iacobelli, the Fiat Chrysler executive, sat on opposite sides of the bargaining table.

Nissan seized the opportunity and launched an online ad campaign through a website called (it has since been deactivated). The anti-union committee in the plant broadcast the news, repeatedly publishing details of the scandal and connecting it with the UAW dues scale to stir up suspicion.

The anti-union committee also used the UAW's long-standing language about "partnership" with the Big Three automakers against the union campaign. The committee's Facebook page posted video of an executive from Ford boasting about how much the UAW worked to collaborate with Ford and make them competitive after the 2007-08 economic crisis. The Facebook caption read: "THAT COMPETITION WAS US!"

Autoworkers at the Big Three have struggled for a number of years to finally abolish the two-tier system of wages and benefits that the UAW agreed to in order to save the companies hundreds of millions of dollars. At $14 an hour, new hires in 2009 made only half the wages of veteran workers.

The UAW has struggled to close the gap in the contract, but the number of workers paid lower-tier wages is huge. Reporting on contract negotiation in 2015, the Los Angeles Times reported that second-tier wages and benefits were being paid to 45 percent of Fiat Chrysler workers, 25 percent of workers at Ford and 20 percent at GM.

Nissan, on the other hand, set its wages to surpass the highest wages paid to Tier 2 workers in the Big Three, eliminating from the start perhaps the most effective union recruiting tool: the higher wages and better benefits enjoyed by union workers compared to nonunion workers.

The strategy of partnership and the Tier 2 issue has hampered the UAW's ability to organize the "transplant" automakers in recent years, and played a role in the UAW's defeat in the plant-wide elections at the Volkswagen factory in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

BUT THE UAW should have expected a solid wall of resistance from the company. Understanding the union defeat requires acknowledging that a National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) election is a profoundly flawed process for achieving union recognition, even if this remains the most common path to unionization.

Many unions' new organizing strategy revolves around the collection of authorization cards, which, when turned in to the NLRB, are supposed to trigger a process leading to a "secret ballot" election.

With the overwhelming level of surveillance and access given to employers, there's hardly anything secret about how workers will vote in a polarized union campaign environment. Many unions turn in their authorization cards at the exact minimum threshold needed to trigger the election process, while others will wait until as close to a supermajority of the workforce signs cards before turning them in.

The expectation is that once the employer launches an all-out war against the union, support is almost guaranteed to fall.

Often, the emphasis on collecting cards can become the primary focus of the drive, rather than organizing at the workplace that can shift the power dynamics on the shop floor. But this latter strategy was how the UAW was built in its early days--by leveraging workers' power at the point of production in places like Flint, Michigan or South Bend, Indiana.

Today, this could mean the slow but steady growth of a pro-union organizing committee, which begins acting like a union long before cards are prioritized, taking up workplace grievances around safety, unfair discipline or termination, opposing unilateral changes to working conditions at the worksite, and organizing around any other issue which can help workers to overcome their fears of retaliation.

Even paternalistic employers have practices in their workplaces that alienate or disgruntle employees, and Nissan was no exception. The company was cited for OSHA safety violations and has implemented unpopular changes to the workforce's pensions and health insurance.

Over time, through successive workplace actions around these grievances, a union committee could overcome fears and build loyalty and confidence among supporters of the union. When unionists have a solid grasp of the workplace and stand a better chance of success, they can then think about collecting authorization cards and triggering a vote.

The CWA's Cunningham, while applauding the UAW effort in Caton, pointed out a drawback common to many unions--a focus on the crimes of a particular company at the expense of showing how individual corporations are connected to a wider economic and political system responsible for enforcing inequality and injustice.

"If we were able to bring it full circle and fill in those blanks for workers," Cunningham said, "they could see how everything is affected and who the enemy is--not just Nissan, but capitalism. I feel like that would be more transformative for them and deepen their understanding about why a union is important, instead of just trash-talking the company."

THERE'S NOTHING intrinsically anti-union about Southern workers, though labor certainly has an advantage in regions with a higher union density in the form of community roots and union family connections.

Nor is it the case that Southern workers can't think for themselves or determine their collective self-interest. Unionists should also recognize that it's 2017, not 1927--and that especially after the "Sunbelt Boom," the South is now more integrated into the economic and social life of the country than ever, which has changed the shape of the working class in different areas.

If unions are to survive in the U.S. and grow into a powerful movement once more, they will have to organize the South--which currently acts as a low-wage reservoir for global capital.

Multinational capital will fight back with every tool at its disposal--so labor will have to think and operate differently, especially prioritizing activism at the workplace, and weld together groups of union activists who will need to be tough, trained and ready to fight like hell.

Alan Maass contributed to this article.

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