| CANTON, Mississippi, July 31
CANTON, Mississippi, July 31 As the United Auto
Workers embarks on an uphill battle to organize Nissan Motor
Co's plant in Mississippi, it is drawing inspiration
from the famous struggle waged in the state during the civil
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
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
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 (32.3 hectares)
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
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 and Dana
Holding Corp 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 i t
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
"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.