Racially Charged Nissan Vote Is a Test for U.A.W. in the South

Racially Charged Nissan Vote Is a Test for U.A.W. in the South

- in Automotive
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In another camp are those workers who believe they should not be asked to grade the company on the curve that is Mississippi’s low-wage economy. “Nissan knew what they were doing when they put their plant around here,” said Annie Matthews, a union supporter who is also in quality control and a veteran of 14 years at the plant.

Many people had been working at McDonald’s making $7 an hour, she said, “and now this is the best thing that ever happened to them.”

Union supporters complain that the company has been stingy with benefits and bonuses, that workers on the production line are pressured to sacrifice safety to keep the line moving briskly, and that supervisors arbitrarily change policies about discipline and attendance.

And another issue looms awkwardly over the forthcoming vote: race. A large majority of the nearly 6,500 workers at the Nissan plant are African-American. One does not have to search hard for racial overtones.

Along with some of her co-workers, Ms. Matthews, who is black, claimed that white supervisors rewarded white workers who were their friends with cushier assignments. “You’ve got Billy Bob as your manager, you go duck hunting, possum hunting together,” she said.

(The company rejected the accusation, saying that promotions and assignments were made on the basis of merit, and that the rationale for decisions was not always visible to other employees.)

Chip Wells, a pro-union plant worker in Canton. He said a Nissan slide presentation, in which managers said the company could not guarantee most workers’ jobs in the event of a strike, “scared a lot of people.”

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Bryan Schutmaat for The New York Times

The U.A.W., for its part, has taken pains to highlight the campaign’s racial dimension. In its news release announcing the impending vote, it quoted a worker who accused Nissan of violating African-Americans’ labor rights even while marketing cars to them.

The union has also forged close alliances with local black pastors and community leaders, whose mantra has been that the ability to form a union is a civil right.

Anti-union workers at the plant have accused the U.A.W. of buying such support with tens of thousands of dollars in contributions to local civil rights and religious groups. The union says it has contributed to such groups for decades.

Bishop Thomas Jenkins, a local pastor who once led a group of fellow clergymen to the plant to urge Nissan to commit to an evenhanded election process, said Mississippi seemed to have a “spirit of mediocrity,” sending a message that workers “ought to be glad to have a job.” Mr. Jenkins said neither he nor his church had received money from the U.A.W.

In some ways the sensitivity about race may have prevented the organizing campaign from becoming more divisive than it otherwise might have.

During the U.A.W.’s last major campaign in the South, a losing effort at a Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tenn., in 2014, much of the state’s political class conveyed relentless hostility. A conservative group put up billboards tying the U.A.W. to “liberal politicians” including President Barack Obama and suggesting that Chattanooga would go the way of bankrupt Detroit if the union gained a foothold.

In Mississippi, union officials say, the state’s Republican establishment has been relatively subdued, perhaps calculating that more aggressive opposition would be ineffective, even self-defeating.

“If the governor of the state of Mississippi says it’s not good for you, then it must be great for you,” said Barbara Blackmon, the Democratic state senator who represents the area.

Officials at the union, which has been working in earnest to organize the Canton plant since 2012, say a unionized South is crucial to restoring leverage for workers across the country, since employers can rein in wages by locating there, or merely threatening to. “There has to be a floor at some point that workers will not go past,” said Gary Casteel, the union’s second-ranking official.

Nissan, for its part, portrays the U.A.W. as self-interested. A slide presentation run repetitively inside the plant states, “It costs a lot of money to run a union!” and concludes, “That’s why the U.A.W. is here — it wants a piece of your paycheck.” (Mr. Casteel said the union had grown consistently in recent years and was in strong financial shape.)

A Facebook page created by workers opposed to the union has drawn attention to the indictment of a former Fiat Chrysler official accused of diverting millions from a training center to himself and a U.A.W. counterpart. The U.A.W. said it had no knowledge of the scheme and was cooperating with the investigation.

Nissan says that its wages are significantly higher than the average in central Mississippi, and that while it ended eligibility for its pension plan after 2005, it makes two forms of contributions to employees’ retirement accounts — one matching a portion of what workers contribute, and one independent of their contributions. (The major American automakers contribute a roughly equivalent percentage of workers’ income to their retirement funds.) Nissan distributes annual “thank you” bonuses to workers, worth $4,000 in each of the last two years, though the bonuses are not based on profitability, as is the practice with American automakers.

Nissan opened its Canton plant, which is nearly a mile long, more than 14 years ago.

Credit
Bryan Schutmaat for The New York Times

In an ad campaign, Nissan testifies to its efforts to improve the lives of its workers. One ad features an African-American supervisor who describes struggling to pay her bills as a single mother before landing at Nissan, which later promoted her and even helped her finish college.

“If anything, it should be the opposite argument,” said Scott Waller, interim president and chief executive of the Mississippi Economic Council, a business advocacy group, alluding to the potential for racial polarization. The high proportion of African-Americans that Nissan employs at the plant, he said, “speaks to the great progress, the positive things that are happening in this state.”

Still, workers say there is more than one way to divide them than along racial lines — namely, by inciting fear. And Nissan — which unlike Volkswagen before it has refused to stay neutral in the union campaign — has not forsworn this tactic.

In a video shown to workers, Steve Marsh, the plant’s top official, warned that the employees of General Motors, Ford and Fiat Chrysler represented by the U.A.W. “experienced significant instability in recent years, and suffered from many layoffs and plant closings.”

Managers have also held frequent discussions with workers in which they make similar suggestions about how a union could hurt job security. Nissan says the meetings are intended to counter misinformation.

On Friday, a regional director of the National Labor Relations Board issued a complaint against Nissan, charging, among other things, that the company had illegally warned workers that the plant could close if they chose to unionize.

Workers say there are also fault lines between those who have more to lose and those who have less. For example, workers hired in the plant’s early years make about $26 an hour and receive six days of paid time off each year; workers hired more recently top out at about $24 (and often make less) and receive only three paid days off. (In addition to paid time off, all Nissan employees receive 14 paid holidays and 10 to 20 vacation days, depending on how long they’ve been at the company.)

Some workers are also promoted into less physically demanding jobs like quality control, while others languish on the assembly line for a decade or more.

Many of the anti-union workers are “in a job where they’re just walking around with a clipboard, they’re not on that line,” said Eric Hearn, who has worked on one of the plant’s assembly lines for five years. “They’re willing to say anything.”

At a meeting of workers at the local U.A.W. office last week, union supporters fumed about a recent slide presentation in which managers explained that Nissan could not guarantee most workers their old jobs in the event of a strike.

One worker, Chip Wells, later said in an interview that many colleagues were worried by the presentation, even though strikes are a rarity.

“It just scared a lot of people,” Mr. Wells said.

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