Last week, managers at the Nissan manufacturing plant in Canton, Mississippi, pulled workers off the floor and into large group meetings. Using slides to make their case, they tried to show employees all the bad things that can happen after unionizing.
“They’re telling you you’re gonna lose this, you’re gonna lose that. You may go on a strike, and if you go on a strike, you’ll be replaced by a replacement worker,” said Michael Carter, a 14-year veteran at the facility who supports the union. “It’s a lot of fear and intimidation.”
These “roundtable” talks, as they’re known inside the plant, are a sign of the extraordinarily high stakes in the upcoming union election slated for this Thursday and Friday. If the United Auto Workers manage to win a majority at the Canton facility, it will give the Detroit-based union a few thousand new members and a strong toehold in the Southern auto industry.
Many manufacturers have drifted to the region in recent years to take advantage of the lower wages and union-free workforces. The area has generally been difficult territory for labor organizing. In Mississippi, just 6.6 percent of workers belong to a labor union, compared with 10.7 percent nationally.
At the Nissan plant, supervisors have worn “vote no” t-shirts to work in recent days, and in some cases held one-on-one talks with employees to discourage them from joining the UAW, according to workers. Videos are running on loop in the plant’s break areas, painting unions in a bad light. “It costs a lot of money to join a union!” the video asserts.
The election is the culmination of a years-long campaign by the UAW. The union has enlisted civil rights and community groups in its case, as most of the plant employees are African-American. Nissan, in turn, has tried to rally Mississippi businesses against the union, and some politicians have joined them. The Japanese-based automaker has been airing anti-UAW advertisements in the local television market to reach the friends and families of workers. The state’s Republican governor, Phil Bryant, spoke out on Thursday and urged the workers to reject the union.
No one disputes that the Nissan plant has been good for Canton. Since opening in 2003, the facility that now produces the Titan pickup and Murano SUV has provided some of the best-paying blue-collar jobs in an area known for low pay. For those without a college degree, it’s hard to beat a job on the factory floor in Canton. The case made by Nissan and its proxies is simple: Why spurn the town’s benefactor and create uncertainty by bringing in the UAW?
“Nissan is the best thing that has happened to Mississippi in a lot of years,” said Tony Hobson, a Canton employee who plans to vote against unionizing. “It’s been life-changing. We don’t need an outside entity to come in and tell us how to live.”
But for Twina Scott, a pro-union employee and mother of two, the rejoinder is just as simple: Nissan has broken promises in the past, she said, and workers like her want a mechanism to hold the company accountable. Scott points to a frozen pension plan and rising health care costs. She says she was told when she took the job that she would hit a pay rate of $25 per hour after five years. She is now at $26 per hour ― after 14 years. Carter said he was given the same timetable when he started.
Scott said she is tired of hearing she should simply feel grateful to work for Nissan.
“What I know is we need a voice in that plant,” said Scott, 47. “We need job security. We need our pension back. We need a safe working environment. We need a better wage, especially for the transitional workers.”
The plant’s “transitional” workers are the ones who start out as temps technically employed by outside firms. The Canton facility’s reliance on a large, lesser-paid temporary workforce ― who toil right alongside the permanent employees ― bucks the image of auto plants as overflowing with high-paying, stable jobs. The two-tier system has been a source of acrimony within the plant for years, with many workers feeling that the company strategically plays the two groups off one another.
The temps will not be able to cast ballots in the election. But many former temps who’ve transitioned and now collect Nissan paychecks will be voting. Those who support the UAW hope a union contract could limit the company’s use of short-term employees and lift working standards for everyone. As Scott put it, “I work right across from [a temp] every single day, and he works just as hard as I do.”
Roughly four thousand employees will be allowed to vote at the factory, where the workforce totals about 6,000. The UAW needed to round up signatures of at least 30 percent of the eligible workers in order to file for an election, though unions typically don’t take that step without a strong majority. The labor group has declined to say how many workers signed union cards.
A win for the UAW would redeem the union after its bitter loss at the Volkswagen auto plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee, in 2014. Although the mission in that election was the same as in Canton ― to unionize a foreign auto “transplant” in the South ― the dynamic was quite different. While Republican politicians and conservative groups campaigned against the UAW, Volkswagen itself took a neutral position and didn’t oppose the union. The UAW still lost by a vote of 712 to 626, though it later unionized a smaller group of employees.
Nissan, on the other hand, has carried out an aggressive anti-union campaign that the UAW says has crossed legal lines. The general counsel for the National Labor Relations Board, the federal agency that serves as referee in labor disputes, has agreed with the union. Over the past two years, the board’s general counsel filed a host of what are known as unfair labor practice charges against the company, accusing managers of threatening workers with layoffs and even a plant closure if they approved the union. (It’s illegal for an employer to say workers will lose their jobs due to unionization.)
Those cases have not yet been resolved. Given the atmosphere in the plant, the UAW may file more allegations of unfair labor practices before workers cast ballots, which is not uncommon in heated elections. It’s also possible the union will argue the election has been tainted by the managers’ actions, requesting that the vote be pushed back. Nissan said it anticipates the election will go forward as planned.
“What I know is we need a voice in that plant.”
Rodney Francis, the plant’s human resources director, said in an interview that the company was not trying to intimidate workers. Many people in the area don’t understand everything that unionizing entails, Francis said, so Nissan wanted to make sure workers had all the facts. He denied that one-on-one meetings with managers might feel coercive.
“We’re trying to give them information,” Francis said. “I can tell you I’ve been on the floor talking to technicians and supervisors, everybody ― they’re craving more information.”
And yet that information comes with a distinct point of view. “We don’t think [a union] is in the best interest of our employees,” Francis acknowledged. “If you look at the track record, there’s a history of layoffs and strikes and that kind of thing. We’re communicating that.”
Nissan and its allies have tried to use Detroit’s hardships as a baleful warning against organizing. Kristina Adamski, a Nissan spokeswoman, noted that she was born and raised in the union-strong Detroit area and previously worked for General Motors and Ford.
The Detroit community is “not doing well because of plant closures,” she said in an interview. “We want to make sure that Canton continues to stay competitive in the global market.” (Detroit-based G.M. and Ford hit record sales in recent years, though that market has slowed in 2017.)
Hobson said he has been making the same case to his colleagues who are on the fence. He even made an anti-UAW t-shirt in which the union’s acronym stands for something else: “Unemployed auto workers.”
Carter, who works in the plant’s body shop, said the company seems to equate a vote for the UAW with “turning your back on Nissan.” This can be a persuasive message for someone who was making $8 an hour in a previous job, he said. “You give them $25, they think, ’I’m not going to do anything to jeopardize my $25,’” Carter said.
In Carter’s estimation, that’s the wrong line of thinking.
“We understand, they provide a lot of jobs,” Carter said. “But at the same time, you can’t mistreat the people in there who are helping you make a profit. We gave Nissan every chance to change and they didn’t.”