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UAW stakes future on union vote in Deep South

The UAW union has targeted the Nissan plant in Canton, Miss., as a key piece in its strategy to bolster its ranks.

James Patterson/The New York Times

The UAW union has targeted the Nissan plant in Canton, Miss., as a key piece in its strategy to bolster its ranks.

CANTON, Miss. — The United Auto Workers, desperate to make inroads in the anti-union South, where Toyota, Volkswagen, and other foreign automakers have assembly plants, has never tried a unionization drive quite like the one at the Nissan plant here.

It has enlisted thousands of union members in Brazil to picket Nissan dealerships there as the company prepares to co-sponsor the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. The union has sent a team of Mississippi ministers and workers to South Africa, where Nissan has an assembly plant, to try to embarrass the company with accusations that it violates workers’ rights at the Canton plant.

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Over the next few weeks, a delegation of UAW leaders and supporters will go to Tokyo and Paris, the headquarters of Renault, Nissan’s partner, to publicize a report by a Cornell University professor that asserts Nissan’s managers have illegally threatened to close the Mississippi plant if workers vote to unionize.

Chip Wells supports unionization, citing unequal treatment of workers.

James Patterson/New York Times

Chip Wells supports unionization, citing unequal treatment of workers.

These efforts are largely directed at Nissan’s part-Brazilian, part-French chief executive, Carlos Ghosn, a renowned cost cutter who said the company prefers communicating with its Mississippi workers without a union.

Closer to home, the actor Danny Glover has embraced the UAW’s cause, speaking at colleges across the South to recruit students to distribute union fliers at Nissan dealerships. The union has also helped create a group of students and community and religious leaders, the Mississippi Alliance for Fairness at Nissan, which includes the NAACP. The alliance often uses the slogan, “Labor Rights Are Civil Rights.”

At a time when the UAW has fewer than one-third of the 1.5 million workers it had in 1979, its organizing push in the South has taken on urgency and is being watched by labor leaders across the country.

“It’s a life-and-death matter for the UAW to succeed in the South,” said Nelson Lichtenstein, a professor and labor historian at the University of California Santa Barbara. “That’s why they’ve put their best organizers into this campaign.”

The unionization battle has badly divided workers at the gleaming white Nissan plant here, which stretches four-fifths of a mile along Interstate 55 and produces 450,000 Altimas, Sentras, and other vehicles a year. The pro-union forces say many workers are backing the UAW, while anti-union workers insist the union has little chance of gaining majority backing.

Some anti-union workers wear T-shirts saying, “If you want a union, go to Detroit.”

Despite the union’s previous failures in the South, Bob King, the UAW’s president, has undertaken its most ambitious campaign in the region. In addition to Canton, it is also pushing to organize Volkswagen’s plant in Chattanooga and the Daimler-Benz plant in Vance, Ala.

“Bob King has basically staked his legacy on organizing these international assembly plants,” said Kristin Dziczek, director of the labor and industry group at the Center for Automotive Research. “Unless they unionize more of the automotive workforce in the country, they will become wage takers, not wage setters.”

The union faces rough going in Mississippi, she said, considering the embarrassing loss it suffered in 2001 when workers at Nissan’s plant in Smyrna, Tenn., voted 2 to 1 against joining the UAW.

King vows better results.

“What’s different this time is there is really strong and active community support,” he said.

Stephanie Sutton says the UAW overstates the support it has and stands to lose a vote on unions at the plant.

Richard Patterson/New York Times

Stephanie Sutton says the UAW overstates the support it has and stands to lose a vote on unions at the plant.

Nissan has invested $2 billion in its state-of-the-art plant, which uses 1,200 robots. The base wage for most of the plant’s workers is $23.22 an hour, making them the envy of many blue-collar workers in Mississippi.

Nonetheless, Morris Mock, a muscular paint technician, strongly backs unionization.

“We’re grateful that Nissan came to Mississippi, but as I grow older, I see that there are safety issues and ergonomic issues that need to be addressed,” said Mock, 39, who has worked at the plant since it opened. “Nissan started out one way, then things changed.”

Many workers are upset that their wages were frozen for five years and that the plant has hired hundreds of temporary workers, many of them starting around $12 an hour. Experienced workers complain that they are relegated to night shifts because the temporary workers are often given the coveted day shifts.

“They give them the easier jobs so they won’t leave,” said Chip Wells, a paint technician.

Still, Stephanie Sutton, a paint technician for 10 years, insists that the union has less support than it realizes. She said many workers are speaking out for a union to pressure Nissan to give larger raises but will not vote for the UAW.

“You have a lot of people who talk the talk, but I don’t know if they’re going to stand up when it counts,” she said.

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