Insight: UAW invokes civil rights at Nissan's Mississippi plant

CANTON, Mississippi Tue Jul 31, 2012 3:02pm EDT

1 of 3. Carlos Ghosn, president and CEO of Nissan, poses with the new Nissan Altima at the 2012 New York International Auto Show in New York in this file photo taken April 4, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Andrew Burton

CANTON, Mississippi (Reuters) - As the United Auto Workers embarks on an uphill battle to organize Nissan Motor Co's (7201.T) plant in Mississippi, it is drawing inspiration from the famous struggle waged in the state during the civil rights movement.

The union sees a winning strategy in depicting the right to unionize freely as a basic civil right. The tactic could resonate at the Canton, Mississippi plant where an estimated 70 percent of the workforce is black.

"The civil rights experience was fought on that very ground," said Gary Casteel, the UAW's top official in the U.S. South. "We've been saying that worker rights is the civil rights battle of the 21st century."

The UAW is betting this new approach will overturn nearly three decades of failed organizing attempts at foreign automakers. Labor experts say the civil rights strategy is smart, but the union still faces long odds in its first major organizing effort at the Canton plant, which opened in 2003.

Japan's No. 2 automaker, Nissan is one of the most resilient and aggressive companies in fending off UAW advances. Twice the union got as far as forcing a vote at Nissan's Smyrna, Tennessee plant. Twice, the UAW was soundly defeated, most recently in 2001.

Carlos Ghosn, Nissan's chief executive, told Reuters last month the company has developed a smooth manufacturing process that relies on direct communication with workers. UAW involvement would gum up the works.

But for the UAW, the stakes are higher at Canton than they were at Smyrna. UAW membership has continued to dwindle, despite slight increases in the past two years. It now stands at about a quarter of its peak size in 1979, diminishing the UAW's cash and clout.

The drive to organize Canton workers is the UAW's first public effort under Bob King, UAW president since mid-2010.

King has said that, to remain viable, the union must organize workers at plants owned by Japanese, German and Korean automakers. Their factories are located mainly in the Deep South, where anti-union sentiment runs high.

The foreign automakers employ 65,000 production workers in the United States, a little over half the blue-collar workforce at the Detroit Three automakers, Casteel said.

The UAW says it will be extremely difficult to win at Nissan in Mississippi, but the risk is well worth the possible reward.

"If you can organize workers in Mississippi, you should be able to organize workers anywhere," said Casteel. "In one way, it's the hardest and it would be the best to win."

UAW WAITS AT THE GATES

Nissan's Canton plant sprawls over 80 acres next to Interstate 55 that connects Jackson to Memphis. It employs 3,900 workers and is growing.

In late June, weeks after the UAW made its organizing effort public, Nissan and anti-union Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant announced that production of the Sentra small sedan would come to Canton, adding 600 new jobs by the end of 2012 to the 400 already created this year.

Most workers hop on the interstate after their shifts and speed home, some commuting 90 minutes or more. There is no place nearby for workers to gather off-site and little chance for pro-union organizers to build a rapport.

"We see faces from time to time, but we really don't know each other," said Wade Cox, a Nissan worker who supports the union.

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 Casteel.

A SYMPATHETIC HEARING?

When he's on the assembly line, James Brown wears a baseball-style cap festooned with UAW buttons. Even so, he said Nissan is a good company to work for and that he is "not anti-Nissan." Like other Nissan workers who back the UAW, Brown says workers there need more of a voice.

"You ever see a guy who goes and buys him a truck?" said Brown, who has worked at the Canton plant since the year it opened. "What's the first thing he wants to put on that thing? Either a set of mud grips, or a toolbox, or some spotlights. So he's going to take a good truck and make it better.

"That's what we want to do with this job," he said.

The UAW's position in Canton is strengthened by "tapping into the old, still-existing civil rights leadership down here," said Joe Atkins, author of "Covering for the Bosses," a book about the media's role in repelling unions in the South.

With the majority of black workers at Canton, Atkins said, "there is more potential for at least a sympathetic hearing among the workforce, just because of the civil rights history in Mississippi" which he said "helps to establish a narrative that could work in the union's favor."

But the connection between civil rights history and the right to join a union or have a voice in work processes may be too abstract. Workers interviewed by Reuters, both for and against the union, said they simply have not thought about the civil rights link.

Canton employees are also paid far better than those at other manufacturing companies in Mississippi, David Reuter, Nissan's vice president of communications in North America said.

A full-time Nissan assembly worker makes about $24.50 per hour in Canton, which works out to about $59,600 annually, including five hours of overtime a week.

Veteran UAW-represented auto workers at a U.S. automaker working an average of five hours overtime a week make $69,500 per year, on hourly wages of just over $28.

Stephanie Sutton, 48, a Canton worker since 2003, said she has no complaints about her job or Nissan. In 2003, she was an unemployed single mother raising two children on $25 a day.

Atkins said the UAW may have difficulty convincing Canton workers who probably would have a difficult time find another job that pays as well in the area. He said many used to make lower wages at undesirable jobs, like at the area's chicken processing plants.

"I don't see where they would help us in any kind of way," Sutton said in a telephone interview. "You have to have a problem to fix, and I don't have any problem that I can't fix with my managers."

However, there is that issue that dogs well-paid workers in many car plants: the increasing presence of contract workers, who are not directly employed by Nissan, but often do the same work as Nissan employees at less pay.

Reuter would not say how many of this year's hires will be contract workers, who have staring pay at around $12 per hour, or with five hours of overtime a week, earn $29,700 annually. The 1,000 new hires this year will be all or almost all contract workers, Casteel says.

GHOSN LOOMS LARGE

Canton will be a rematch of sorts between one of the car world's most successful CEOs and King, the UAW leader who managed to rise to the top after years of organizing.

Ghosn told Reuters he won't become personally involved in the UAW issue in Canton and that his position on the union is "always the same."

"We will naturally remain very neutral on this," Ghosn told Reuters in Tokyo. "This being said, we still continue to think that direct management of the shop floor, direct contact with our people, is the best way to make our plant extremely productive and extremely efficient."

But the ghost of Ghosn will certainty loom large in Canton.

In the heat of 2001, as the union vote was drawing near at Smyrna, Ghosn made a big-screen video pitch to workers at the plant. "Bringing a union into Smyrna could result in making Smyrna not competitive," he said.

Smyrna workers turned back the UAW, 3,103 to 1,486.

The 2001 organizing drive was led by none other than King. He vowed he would return until workers received "justice."

In Canton, King says all he needs is an election to be held without company interference. If he loses, there will be no further attempts to organize at the plant.

(Additional reporting by Ben Klayman in Detroit and Tara Joseph in Tokyo; Editing by Mary Milliken and Leslie Gevirtz)