South remains cool to unions

1:12 PM, Sep 3, 2012   |    comments
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By G. Chambers Williams, The Tennessean

As Americans observe Labor Day, the working person's holiday, a once-strong labor union faces a watershed moment in its efforts to rebuild membership by organizing autoworkers in an increasingly anti-union South.

The UAW, or International Union, United Automobile, Aerospace and Agricultural Implement Workers of America, has ramped up efforts to gain a foothold amid the booming foreign-transplant auto industry below the Mason-Dixon Line, most recently by targeting a sprawling Nissan plant in Canton, Miss., where workers' average wages are $1.50 an hour less than those at a comparable Nissan factory near Nashville.

The battle to unionize Canton - where the workforce is 75 percent African-American - has garnered the support of the NAACP chapter there as well as church ministers.

But winning a union vote - or even getting one scheduled - will be a daunting task.

Nissan officials are fighting back vigorously, and the automaker has a strong track record of fending off the UAW. Eleven years ago, Nissan defeated the most recent organizing push at its Smyrna, Tenn., assembly plant, arguing that workers didn't need a union local to get a fair shake or competitive pay.

The stakes remain high, though, as the union tries to rebuild its sagging membership. The UAW has watched membership tank from a high of 1.5 million in 1979 to just 390,000 nationwide today as the U.S. auto industry as a whole downsized, shuttered plants and laid off workers during the recession.

"The UAW is really desperate to add membership, especially now that they are at a quarter of their peak," said David Cole, chairman emeritus of the Michigan-based Center for Automotive Research and son of former General Motors' President Edward Cole.

It's unclear whether a UAW victory in Canton would spark follow-up campaigns to organize other plants, including Nissan's Smyrna facility again or the new Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, both of which have seen recent production increases.

Tennessee has always been a tough market for labor unions, said Gary Moore, president of the state's branch of the AFL-CIO and a former president of the Tennessee Professional Fire Fighters Association. In 2011, only 4.6 percent of Tennessee's workers were members of unions, compared with the national average of 11.8 percent.

Group weakened

Unions have lost power elsewhere in the state. Last year, Gov. Bill Haslam signed a bill into law that critics blasted as a Republican effort to break the main teachers union, the Tennessee Education Association, by abolishing collective bargaining in more than 90 school districts. Formal contract negotiations have been replaced with a concept dubbed "collaborative conferencing," basically non-binding discussions that strip away much of the teachers union's clout.

"The powers that be in Tennessee are anti-union and are pressing companies like Volkswagen not to let (unions) in," Moore said. "Public employees in Tennessee don't have any real negotiating rights, and teachers had it until it was taken away last year."

UAW officials, who tried and failed to organize Nissan's Smyrna plant several years ago, argue that the autoworkers union is more partner than corporate foe these days as carmakers strive to rebound from weak sales.

"We fully understand that for our members to prosper, the company has to be successful," said Gary Casteel, Lebanon-based director of the UAW's District 8, which includes most of the South.

He also understands what's at stake as the UAW attempts to rebuild its membership after years of decline.

"We're not in boom times for unions," Casteel said. "But the numbers are coming back. We lost members not because the companies were going non-union; they were just closing their facilities."

Nissan seen as 'economic driver'

Organizing Nissan workers at Canton will be extremely difficult unless the UAW can make a plausible case they need the union, said Sujit CanagaRetna, an expert on the South's auto industry who works for the Council of Governments' Southern office in Atlanta.

Foreign auto plants have been providing jobs and expanding during a down economy, while their U.S. auto-industry counterparts were closing plants and laying off workers.

"The backdrop is that the foreign automakers rank among the most successful industries in the country, and they have been a real economic driver for the entire South during an anemic national economic picture," CanagaRetna said. "Nissan workers average $60,000 a year, and that is very good in that part of country."

No vote has been scheduled in Canton yet. The UAW is still trying to get enough workers to sign cards to force a union referendum.

The UAW failed in two highly publicized prior efforts to organize workers at the Nissan plant in Smyrna. Both concluded in overwhelming votes against the union, the last time in 2001. There also have been two previous unsuccessful attempts (but no votes taken) to organize the Canton workers, the last time in 2007.

This time, the union is keying on a couple of issues: an hourly pay difference of about $1.50 between Canton and Smyrna assembly workers, as well as some incompatibilities in benefits; and the fairly recent practice of Nissan to hire temporary "associate" workers rather than putting new hires on the payroll as regular employees.

Canton assembly worker Morris Mock, 38, who has been with Nissan almost 10 years, is among those pushing to bring in the union.

"I think it's a great idea," he said. "I think the UAW would give the technicians a voice."

There are serious issues that need to be solved, Mock said.

"They put pressure on you to produce, produce, produce and keep the line moving, even when a technician is saying we need to slow the line down to make sure this car is right," he said. "It's stressful when you always have a whip over your head.

"There's a lot of fear inside the factory," he added. "We're trying to organize a union, and the company is completely against it, as we expected. They're holding round tables and even showing videos about plant closings to try to scare my brothers and sisters."

Mock said anti-union T-shirts are being handed out in the plant and that workers who turn them down are penalized by not getting overtime or other perks. The shirts are emblazoned with messages such as, "If You Want a Union, Move to Detroit."

Other Nissan employees at the plant see no reason to unionize. Assembly worker Stephanie Sutton, 48, said she's the person behind the "no union" T-shirts, and that no managers are involved in that project.

"I've been handing out the T-shirts," Sutton said. "I wanted to stand up and say, 'Hey, I'm pro-Nissan.' "

Before she signed on with Nissan in 2003, Sutton was a single mother making $20 a day selling jewelry from a booth at the Jackson Medical Mart. Today, she earns $23 an hour and sees a big benefit for her family.

Nissan said it doesn't believe its workers need a union, and it has been telling employees just that.

"We communicate routinely with our workers in all of our facilities, and the topic of union organizing is very important to our business," said Nissan spokesman David Reuter. "We have talked openly about it with our employees."

Jay Moon, president of the Mississippi Manufacturers Association, took part in his state's economic development efforts to recruit Nissan, and he says a low rate of unionization in the South was a key selling point.

"Our opinion is we don't feel unions have a place in the state," Moon said. "The workers of Mississippi consistently vote against unions in the rare instance that it even comes to a vote."

Others argue that companies should evaluate the quality of a state's education system or determine how progressive a city is socially before moving a plant or corporate headquarters somewhere, and that union status of workers shouldn't make any difference. But union officials who have fought and lost battles in the South say that's a pipe dream.

"It is more difficult in the South for labor unions to get traction, and that's just the way things are," said Robert O'Connell, head of the Tennessee State Employees Association, a group that lobbies on behalf of public employees but has no power to negotiate for its members. "The South has a history of being less than friendly to unions."

But as for today's holiday, he said: "On Labor Day, we should stop and think about the value of those who pack their lunch pails every day and go to work to do their jobs. It's on their backs that our economic system was built."

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