The UAW takes aim at Nissan

The UAW campaign to organize a Nissan factory in Mississippi is leading on social justice issues, but a commitment to "partnership" will hold it back, writes Joe Richard.

Autoworkers and their supporters march for the union in Mississippi (UAW)Autoworkers and their supporters march for the union in Mississippi (UAW)

THE UNITED Auto Workers (UAW) is ramping up its efforts to organize the sprawling Nissan auto assembly plant in Canton, Mississippi.

With a recent rally and march to the plant built by a group calling itself the Mississippi Alliance for Fairness at Nissan, hundreds of community members and autoworkers delivered a letter to plant management demanding that Nissan respect workers' right to organize and agree to neutrality in a future union vote.

Actor and political activist Danny Glover and Sen. Bernie Sanders participated in the march, bringing star power and national attention to the UAW campaign.

Canton, a small town about 25 miles north of the state capital of Jackson, became the home of Nissan's latest expansion in the U.S. South in 2003, when the plant first began rolling cars off the assembly line. The plant was financed with hundreds of millions of dollars in tax breaks and subsidies from the state of Mississippi, and represents one of three nonunion plants operated by the company (the other two are in Tennessee).

Madison County, of which Canton is the county seat, is Trump country. In the 2016 primaries, Trump received around 7,500 votes. Bernie Sanders, who lost every county in Mississippi to Hillary Clinton, received 1,434. About twice as many Republicans voted as did Democrats: 17,942 to the Democrats' 8,889.

The U.S. South in general and the Canton area in particular are low-wage havens for multinational employers. Canton is an economically depressed small town: As of the 2010 census, per capita income totaled only $15,192 per year, with more than 31 percent of the population below the federal poverty line. The population of Canton is 75 percent African American. The overwhelming poverty of the area has allowed Nissan to pose as a paternalistic job creator.

The vast majority of the 6,400 workers employed in the plant are African American. Around a quarter of the workforce, however, are temp workers who can be laid off at any time. The UAW went public with its drive to unionize the plant in 2012, but it's not currently seeking to represent temp workers in the plant.

Workers complain of arbitrary management policies, irregular scheduling and unsafe working conditions, and wages top out after five years at around $22 per hour. While this rate is lower than union wages in some places, it still makes Nissan employees some of highest-paid workers in Madison County.

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THE UAW faces tremendous pressure to organize what auto industry analysts refer to as the "transplant" automakers--as if American carmakers GM and Ford don't operate plants around the globe, not to mention Chrysler, which is owned by Italian carmaker Fiat.

These companies have invested heavily in production facilities in the U.S. South in order to take advantage of lower wages. To make sure it stays that way, the companies have fiercely resisted unionization efforts.

The UAW hasn't been able to win a single plant-wide union election at any of the transplant automakers in the South, though in 2015, it did succeed in organizing a unit of 164 skilled trades workers at the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

In the years since the Second World War, the UAW leveraged its power to pioneer the practice of industry-wide pattern bargaining. Today, however, the UAW represents only about 20 percent of autoworkers. After years of hemorrhaging members, the union needs to devise a new strategy if it hopes to survive, let alone thrive and grow.

Meanwhile, it faces a solid wall of opposition from hostile multinational corporations, local media outlets, national right-wing think tanks and nonprofits--and, of course, local and state governments, which have been openly hostile to the UAW's efforts. Taking a page out of the old redbaiting playbook, Mississippi's right-wing Republican Gov. Phil Bryant tweeted of the Canton march that it was "sadly predictable that a Socialist would attempt to advance his radical agenda and harm hardworking Mississippians."

The recent defeat of the International Association of Machinists union in its drive to organize the Boeing aircraft plant in North Charleston, South Carolina, highlights the major hurdles to overcome in organizing workers in the "right-to-work" South.

The combined opposition of Boeing and state government, as well as more than a few insinuations that the plant would close down in the case of a union victory, served to soundly defeat the IAM, with 74 percent voting against union representation.

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BUT AS in the case of the Boeing vote, some of the obstacles to victory at Southern auto plants have been created by the leadership of the UAW itself.

The UAW is committed to a failing strategy of "partnership" and collaboration with the Big Three automakers--GM, Ford and Chrysler. In the aftermath of the Great Recession of 2008, the UAW accepted even deeper cuts in wages and benefits as part of Barack Obama's celebrated bailout of the industry, with devastating consequences for pay and work standards across the country.

Nissan and other automakers have seized every opportunity to point out that, under the two-tier wage system agreed to by the UAW leadership, the top pay for new hires on the second tier is around $19 or $20 an hour--below the top wages offered to nonunion workers in Canton.

Predictably, the two-tier system has been tremendously unpopular among autoworkers at the Big Three. A tentative contract deal between the UAW and Fiat-Chrysler was voted down in 2015, before a deal was approved that narrowed the gap and eventually allowed for a phase-in period of more than eight years to eliminate the differential. Autoworkers at Ford and GM got the same, although plenty of loopholes remain around contracting out jobs and benefits.

Two-tier wages and benefits not only impose concessions on workers and save costs for employers, but they also break up the unity of the workforce and undercut arguments for solidarity between tiers, allowing employers to paint the union as a self-interested group for some workers and not others. The dynamic can be toxic for attempts to fight for improved conditions.

The language of partnership and proposals to collaborate with management were also deployed heavily by the UAW during the organizing campaign at Volkswagen--in an effort to downplay the possibility for disruption and to evade an anti-union campaign from plant managers.

In fact, the UAW strategy at Volkswagen centered around pressuring the company for a neutrality agreement, in which the company promises to not engage in anti-union tactics, through pressure from union representatives on Volkswagen's board in Germany.

Though the company eventually agreed to the proposal, the union was bound by a set of strict rules as well, including restrictions on what they could say about the company and a ban on visiting workers at home (one of the most effective tactics in union organizing).

As Chris Brooks reported after the failed election in Chattanooga:

Additionally, the neutrality agreement contained a clause that barred the union from making disparaging claims against the company, basically prohibiting workers from publicly organizing around the issues they were facing in the plant, such as the increasing use of temporary workers to perform assembly line work, inadequate training, repetitive stress and the brutal rotating shifts that never allow workers to catch up on sleep or their bodies to heal. Instead, the UAW focused entirely on selling the idea that a vote for the union was a vote for a new form of labor-management partnership: forming the first ever German-style works council in a U.S. manufacturing plant.

There was just one problem. "Nobody gave a dang about a works council," said Clarence, a pro-union assembly worker who has been in the plant for about five years. Clarence believes that the UAW wasn't capable of building more support among workers for one simple reason: "They didn't hammer down on any issues."

Autoworkers at Volkswagen asked themselves if they really needed to pay union dues and fight for representation in order to collaborate with plant managers, when they already do so for free.

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AT NISSAN, the UAW seems to be moving in a somewhat different direction, emphasizing anti-discrimination protections in union contracts and the historic connections between unions and the civil rights movement, which looms large in Canton's not-very-distant past.

Still, the UAW is calling for employer neutrality from Nissan, which is a farfetched dream for a multinational company with deep pockets and powerful political connections intent on exploiting cheap labor in the rural South.

The UAW is relying on community and interfaith support to buttress workers' confidence and undercut local paternalism, but it may not be enough if the union doesn't actively build a presence inside the plant and show how it would fight around immediate grievances, workplace accidents and arbitrary managerial decision-making.

Given the enormous power of the company locally and across the region and the loyalty and fear Nissan is able to command through threats of closing the plant, the UAW will have to weld workers in the plant into a hardcore group that can move their co-workers into support for the union campaign.

In small communities where Nissan workers live all across Mississippi, the company will place enormous pressure on workers through targeted messaging, reaching them through community groups, newspapers, churchgoers and family members. There won't really be a secret ballot in small-town Southern communities.

With overwhelming opposition from the state's political class and the media, an Organizing Committee will need to win the respect and loyalty of their workmates, who in the end are the people who will vote yes or no in a union election.

Every reader of this publication should do what they can to support a union victory at Nissan. If the UAW wins, it could be the beginning of a crack in the anti-labor South and an opening for the unionization of the thousands of manufacturing employers that fled Northern states in search of smaller payrolls and nonunion workers.