JACKSON, Miss. — Workers at Nissan’s plant in Canton, Miss., soundly rejected United Auto Workers representation after a multi-year organizing campaign, delivering a major blow to the union’s organizing efforts in the South.
By a 63%-37% margin, workers cast their ballot against the UAW in an election that spanned two days. The vote was 2,244 to 1,307.
“With this vote, the voice of Nissan employees has been heard. They have rejected the UAW and chosen to self-represent, continuing the direct relationship they enjoy with the company,” Nissan said in a statement.
The UAW, however, claimed that the election was tainted by voter intimidation and other unfair labor practices. The union filed a fresh set of unfair labor practice charges Friday with the National Labor Relations Board against Nissan just as voting was drawing to a close.
The UAW filed seven separate allegations saying that Nissan denied the union to equal access to the voter list, created a system that rates employees according to their level of union support and improperly surveillance employees union related activities.
“The courageous workers of Nissan, who fought tirelessly for union representation alongside community and civil-rights leaders, should be proud of their efforts to be represented by the UAW,” UAW President Dennis Williams said in a statement. “The result of the election was a setback for these workers, the UAW and working Americans everywhere, but in no way should it be considered a defeat.”
If the NLRB rules in favor of the charges, the board could order a fresh election.
Nissan immediately denied the allegations and questioned the UAW’s intentions.
“Filing unfair labor practice charges is a common tactic used by unions in an organizing campaign,” the automaker said in a statement. “The UAW is again launching baseless and unsubstantiated allegations against Nissan Canton in a desperate, last-minute attempt to undermine the integrity of the secret ballot voting process.”
The union has been complaining about what it says are Nissan’s aggressive anti-union campaign tactics for months. UAW secretary-treasurer Gary Casteel on Monday accused Nissan of intimidating workers and said the union was preparing possible charges.
“The (National Labor Relations Board) could actually find there’s no way to have a fair election here because they’re saying it’s supposed to be a clinical environment, and if the clinical environment is sabotaged in some way, the board could find there’s no way to have a free and fair election,” Casteel said.
With a lot at stake, Nissan put considerable effort into urging workers to reject union representation.
“The UAW has a very committed and passionate group. But there has been fierce pressure and considerable resources committed to defeating this.”
Nissan has said it is simply trying to get its story out to employees and to the community,” said Harley Shaiken, a professor at the University of California-Berkeley who specializes in labor issues.
In the final days leading up to the vote, Nissan hammered its message home through advertising, one-on-one meetings with workers and videos played in the plant its position on the potential ramifications of unionizing. Workers at other unionized plants have “experienced significant instability” and “suffered from many layoffs and plant closings,” Nissan said in a company-created video.
Nissan’s local advertising blitz included television commercials, newspaper and radio advertisements — even Spotify, making it difficult for local residents to watch TV or listen to the radio too long without hearing a Nissan ad.
“The union is about themselves, that’s all it is — it’s about greed,” a worker said in one video advertisement from Nissan.
Assembly and maintenance workers, 3,700 in total, began voting early Thursday morning until 7 p.m. Friday.
The UAW has been trying to organize the plant since it opened in 2003. In recent years, it married a worker rights campaign with a civil rights campaign.
With help from the NAACP, U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt. and actor Danny Glover, local clergy and politicians, the UAW waged a pro-union campaign that compared itself to the civil rights movement. On Friday, activists were tweeting about their efforts to convince workers to vote yes.
A victory in Mississippi would have been an eye-opening win both for those in the labor movement and for those who have been trying to diminish the power of unions.
In recent years, the UAW has had some success organizing plants operated by suppliers in the South (Navistar’s IC Bus plant in Tulsa, Okla., Flex-n-Gate in Arlington, Texas, and Faurecia in Louisville, Ky.) but has not managed to win the ultimate prize — an assembly plant with thousands of workers.
But in Mississippi, the organizing vote, which the UAW called for last month, divided workers at the Canton plant where Nissan builds the Murano sport utility vehicles, commercial vans and Titan and Frontier pickup trucks.
“If you look at the track record of the UAW, they’re steady laying off and closing plants,” said Marvin Cooke, a Nissan employee who said he voted “no.”
Actually the UAW has actually gained more than 60,000 members since 2010. As of Dec. 31, the UAW had 415,963 members nationwide, its highest membership level since 2009, according to the annual report the union filed with the U.S. Department of Labor in March.
The rebound that has been driven in part from organizing victories and also because the U.S. auto industry has added thousands of workers during a period of seven years of sustained growth.
Still, the UAW’s membership and political power is a far cry from what it was in 1979, when it represented more than 1.5 million employees.
Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant also blamed unions in a recent speech for harming the automotive industry in Detroit. Union-supporters reject this correlation.
Nissan employees who opposed the UAW didn’t take into consideration what unions have been able to accomplish since their creation to improve working conditions, said Brenda Scott, president of the Mississippi Alliance of State Employees/Communication Workers of America.
They take for granted the federal labor laws that unions helped establish, she said.
“What did they win?” Scott said of those who voted “no.” “People allow themselves to be treated as though they are property of Nissan.”
The decision by Nissan workers this week follows a trend: Workers at Nissan’s other U.S. plant in Smyrna, Tennessee, voted twice against unionizing in 1998 and 2001.
The UAW may now be forced to reassess its organizing campaigns. The UAW also has ongoing campaigns at Mercedes-Benz in Tuscaloosa, Ala. and at Tesla in Fremont, Calif.
The union came close to a victory at Volkswagen’s plant in Chattanooga, Tenn. in 2014 but was outmaneuvered by state politicians and other political groups that mounted a high-profile public campaign against the union. In 2015, a smaller group of skilled trades workers voted in favor of UAW representation but that victory has been held up by legal challenges.
In Canton, Nissan employs 6,400 workers but 2,700 of those — temporary workers hired through contractor Kelly Services — were not eligible to vote.
Those employees have been some of the biggest proponents of unionizing, considering their complaints of low pay for the same work and an inability to quickly move their way up to full-time.
Earlier in the week, Nissan took aim at a recent corruption scandal in Detroit and wasn’t shy about expressing its view of the UAW,
“The latest UAW corruption scandal in Detroit and the history of strikes, layoffs and plant closures at UAW-represented plants, along with the many false claims and promises made by the UAW during this campaign are among the many reasons we do not believe that UAW representation is in the best interest of the employees of Nissan Canton,” the company said.
Nissan generates $2.9 billion annually in state gross domestic product and $300 million in local and state tax revenue, according to a 2016 report by Mississippi State University’s National Strategic Planning & Analysis Research Center. The report also says, in addition to the 6,400 jobs at Nissan, the plant has indirectly created more than 18,000 others.
Scott said the UAW and its supporters should continue to try to organize the plant.
“The struggle continues,” Scott said. “I don’t think UAW should just pack up and move out of here … I think we owe it to those workers to not walk away … Nissan is going to go right back to business as usual.”
Wolfe reported from Jackson and Snavely from Detroit