UAW Picks Nissan Transplant at Canton, Mississippi with Hope and a Prayer

Labor Organizing
Nissan plant in Canton

New Orleans  When driving up I-55 between New Orleans and Memphis last Friday to work with a ton of groups trying to save historic Foote Homes and finally force real discussion and input for communities about their future in Memphis, hitting Jackson always feels like the halfway point in a quick trip.  Hardly past Jackson less than 30 miles up the interstate, lined with trees and fields for miles, your head always snaps to attention before Canton as the long, white expanse of the Nissan auto manufacturing plant stretches out before you, seemingly forever in the juxtaposition with its surroundings.  The 10-year old plant which makes the Altima and employs between 3000 and 4000 permanent and temporary workers and has been one of the premier auto plants in the foreign manufacturing invasion in Tennessee, Alabama, and elsewhere that the United Automobile Workers (UAW) union has referred to as “transplants.”

Bob King, the former organizing director and now president of the UAW, has now made it clear that after years of failing to organize any of the transplants that he is staking the flag, and perhaps the future of the once great and now shrunken, 400000-member union, on potential success at the Nissan plant at Canton.  None of this comes as a surprise to me, having had conversations off-and-on as long as 4 and 5 years ago about how a community-labor coalition could be built to support an effort in Mississippi, but the campaign has clearly now entered a new public and strategic stage which brings the organizing drive past speculation and planning to a much more serious place fraught with both risk and potential.

A former ACORN leader, Sarah Dave, living in the Jackson area had gone “old school” and sent a copy of the July 18th edition of the Jackson Free Press by US mail with a long, front page piece by Joe Atkins entitled Operation Dixie:  The Battle to Unionize Nissan so we knew what was happening in Canton.  Atkins’ piece is a strong, well reported sympathetic piece that set the stage for the coming fight.

Reading the story as an organizer though was a frightening, worrisome experience.   These are the “rollout” stories where the stage is set, which might be seen as the “honeymoon” phase of the campaign for the UAW drive, before the campaign is fully engaged.  Atkins reports on a meeting in Canton where the UAW had brought in the star power of Hollywood’s Danny Glover, accompanied curiously by Bruce Raynor, the old ACTWU, UNITE, and now SEIU’s Workers’ United president emeritus, as a southern organizing “expert.”  Atkins says there were six people who met with Glover and Raynor.  Ouch!  That can’t be the number of workers that UAW organizers had hoped to draw for such a high profile, press covered, dog-and-pony show!  The workers interviewed seemed solid, if not inspired, while the union seems to be searching for the issues that might ignite the campaign and trying out wage disparities with other plants, wage freezes, and the threat of temporary workers (there are about 800 in the plant now) to see if something might catch fire.

Glover seems to have spent a lot of time trying to rekindle the long banked fires of the civil rights movement to see if there was a spark there that might fuel the drive.  In a workforce that is 80% African-American with jobs allowing them to make between $45000 and $60,000 (including 5 hours of “scheduled” overtime according to a Reuters report from July 31st on the UAW effort) which in this recession economy draws a workforce like a magnet to Canton from a 90-mile driving radius, waving the bloody shirt of the civil rights movement is not going to be enough to move the card signing and deepen the support of the workforce.

The UAW strategy pulled from so many current union playbooks seems to be premised on winning neutrality from Nissan.  These kinds of corporate campaigns require tremendous leverage and intense pressure, and have fallen short in recent years almost as often as they have succeeded as evidenced by foundering efforts with Wal-Mart, Sodexho, and other companies.  Bernie Woodall reporting for Reuters from Canton nailed the strategy and its long odds of success clearly:

If a vote in Canton were held today, the UAW would surely lose, according to more than a dozen workers and labor experts interviewed by Reuters. But pro-union workers say the union would have a better chance of evening the odds if it were allowed to talk directly to workers. The UAW has successfully organized Southern plants operated by auto parts suppliers Johnson Controls Inc (JCI.N) and Dana Holding Corp (DAN.N) when allowed to speak directly to workers unencumbered by the companies.  The union has started to apply public pressure on Nissan to open its doors.  On June 3, local politicians and religious leaders joined the UAW at a workers’ rally in Canton attended by 250 to 300 people, by UAW count.  The UAW is also creating a planned “monitoring committee” of nationally known politicians and celebrities. The committee members, who will soon be announced, will call on Nissan to give the UAW equal time, Casteel said.  Getting Nissan to agree to a basic set of principles — including remaining neutral during a union drive — is the first task for UAW organizers, and, according to labor analysts, it is a long shot. “We almost always win when the employer expresses true neutrality,” said the UAW’s [Gary] Casteel.

Of course, Casteel’s point about the likelihood of a UAW victory, if labor’s holy grail of “true neutrality” is achieved, is exactly why the chances of this strategy working and winning are somewhat the same as a snowball’s chances of not melting in Mississippi in August.

workers meeting with actor Danny Glover