Nissan auto workers in Mississippi say no to union

For years, workers at auto plants in the U.S. South have been saying no to the idea of joining a union.

The outcome was no different Friday at a Nissan Motor Co. Ltd. plant in Canton, Mississippi.

In a vote of 2,244 to 1,307, Nissan workers rejected a proposal that they be represented by United Auto Workers.

Nissan said the count was overseen by the U.S. National Labor Relations Board, Reuters reported.

"With this vote, the voice of Nissan employees has been heard. They have rejected the UAW and chosen to self-represent, continuing the direct relationship they enjoy with the company,” Nissan said in a statement, according to the Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Mississippi.

"With this vote, the voice of Nissan employees has been heard."

- Nissan company statement

Nissan also reminded its Mississippi workers about a recent UAW corruption scandal in Detroit, the newspaper said.

The leadership of the UAW, however, claimed that Nissan engaged in voter intimidation and other unfair practices in Mississippi. It filed new grievances against Nissan on Friday with the National Labor Relations Board, the newspaper reported.

“The result of the election was a setback for these workers, the UAW and working Americans everywhere, but in no way should it be considered a defeat,” UAW President Dennis Williams said in a statement.

According to the newspaper, the UAW claims that Nissan denied the union to equal access to the voter list, created a system that rates employees according to their level of union support and improperly monitored employees’ union-related activities.

If the NLRB rules in favor of the union, a new election could be held, and Nissan could be ordered by a court to end any transgressive practices.

Nissan, however, denied any wrongdoing.

“Filing unfair labor practice charges is a common tactic used by unions in an organizing campaign,” the automaker said in a statement. “The UAW is again launching baseless and unsubstantiated allegations against Nissan Canton in a desperate, last-minute attempt to undermine the integrity of the secret ballot voting process.”

In the final days leading up to the vote, Nissan appealed to its employees in advertising, one-on-one meetings and videos played inside the plant. It argued that workers at unionized plants have “experienced significant instability” and “suffered from many layoffs and plant closings.”

“The union is about themselves. That’s all it is. It’s about greed,” a worker says in one Nissan ad.

Meanwhile, Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant, a Republican, and anti-union workers blamed the UAW for layoffs and plant closings by Detroit’s major automakers.

“With the UAW, all you’ve got to do is look at their history,” said Tony Hobson, a Nissan forklift driver and outspoken union opponent.

“With the UAW, all you’ve got to do is look at their history.”

- Tony Hobson, forklift driver for Nissan in Canton, Mississippi

However, the UAW has actually gained more than 60,000 members since 2010, the Clarion-Ledger reported. As of Dec. 31, the UAW had 415,963 members nationwide, its highest membership level since 2009, according to a UAW report filed to the U.S. Labor Department.

The rebound that has been driven in part by union organizing efforts and also because the U.S. auto industry has strongly rebounded since the 2007-09 recession.

Still, the UAW’s current membership is far below its 1979 figure of more than 1.5 million employees, the newspaper noted.

The UAW has been trying to organize the Canton plant since it opened in 2003. This year, the union received help from the NAACP, U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, and actor Danny Glover, as well as local religious leaders and politicians, the Clarion-Ledger reported.

But in ultimately rejecting the UAW, the Nissan workers failed to take into account some important facts, said Brenda Scott, president of the Mississippi Alliance of State Employees/Communication Workers of America.

Scott said the Nissan employees who opposed the UAW didn’t consider what unions have been able to accomplish since their creation to improve working conditions. She asserted that some workers have taken for granted the federal labor laws that unions helped establish.

“What did they win?” Scott said of those who voted “no.” “People allow themselves to be treated as though they are property of Nissan.”

Workers at Nissan’s other U.S. plant, in Smyrna, Tennessee, voted twice against unionizing, in 1998 and 2001. The UAW, meanwhile, has campaigns still underway at Mercedes-Benz in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, and at Tesla in Fremont, California.

“What did they win? People allow themselves to be treated as though they are property of Nissan.”

- Brenda Scott, president of Mississippi ASE/CWA

Nissan generates $2.9 billion annually in state gross domestic product and $300 million in local and state tax revenue, according to a 2016 report by Mississippi State University's National Strategic Planning & Analysis Research Center.

The report also says, in addition to the 6,400 jobs at Nissan, the plant has indirectly created more than 18,000 others.

Scott said the UAW and its supporters should continue to try to organize the Canton plant.

“The struggle continues,” Scott said. “I don’t think UAW should just pack up and move out of here. … I think we owe it to those workers to not walk away. …  Nissan is going to go right back to business as usual.”

This story includes reporting from the Associated Press.