UAW Battles to Organize the South
August 3, 2012 7:31 am
Despite recent gains, the United Auto Workers currently has only one quarter of its peak 1979 membership, and they have their work cut out for them at manufacturing plants in the southern US. But foreign auto manufacturing plants based in the US may well be the future of the historic union — workers employed by foreign auto total about 54,000 in the US, or half of current UAW membership.
The UAW is currently focusing on a Nissan plant in Canton, Mississippi where about one quarter of the plant’s 4,380 workers are temps. Many of the workers do make a living wage and came to the plant from more menial, low-paying jobs in the area. But Nissan is using the dismal regional economics as a tactic during captive audience meetings, implying that workers should feel lucky to have a relatively well-paying job.
UAW President Bob King addresses the motivation for organizing without the typical wage and pension demands in Labor Notes:
Likewise, Big 3 pensions aren’t a selling point “because we don’t have good pensions for the new hires in Ford, GM, and Chrysler,” King says. “What we say is if we get the whole industry organized, people can get what they deserve.”
The UAW has tried and failed to organize US-based foreign auto plants for three decades, and Nissan is a particularly tough opponent (it soundly defeated UAW in Smyrna, Tennessee). In Mississippi, only 6.5% of the population claims union membership, yet the potential reward is seen as worth the risk to organizers.
The relatively high wages paid to Canton Nissan employees do not reflect the true employment situation at the plant — each day, the plant’s 941 temps, who start at around $12 an hour, labor alongside full-time employees performing the same work. Though this organizing drive is not focused on temps specifically (who are employed through an agency), a union would allow for a less precarious workforce — something the profitable auto manufacturer should be expected to provide.
The company’s claims that a union will endanger jobs are unfounded. Nissan received $363 million in subsidies to come to Mississippi, and Labor Notes sums up the manufacturers rosy economic situation:
The company has just announced 1,000 new jobs in Canton. Nissan’s stated goal is to grow from 8.2 percent of the U.S. market to 10 percent—making a shutdown unlikely.
The demographics of the plant favor the UAW, who have oriented their drive to promote union organizing as analogous to the civil rights struggle. Reuters reports: “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.”
Casteel’s view of union organizing as a civil right echoes the calls of Richard Kahlenberg and friend of Unionosity Moshe Marvit. The duo published a book, entitled Why Labor Organizing Should Be a Civil Right, and the attendant Change.org campaign seeks to gain protection for union organizing under the civil rights act.
Meanwhile, on the ground in Canton, UAW reps have all but given up on employer neutrality. The UAW’s King asked foreign manufacturers to accept voluntary “Principles for Fair Union Elections” in January of 2011, but has not received the cooperation of manufacturers.
Rafael Martinez, a member of the Nissan Workers Committee for a fair election, speaks out against Nissan’s anti-union stance in Labor Notes:
They can’t keep using Mississippi as an excuse and compare the auto industry to Walmart or McDonald’s,” [Martinez] fumes. “This is not a grocery store, this is a multibillion-dollar company which is a union company across the world.
James Brown, a worker at the Canton, MI Nissan plant, uses a fitting metaphor to discuss the need for a union in Reuters:
“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.”
Image from here