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Pressure Mounts on Nissan as UAW Targets US Plant

Oct. 20, 2013
The UAW's efforts have won the endorsement of Nissan's Japanese unions and sympathetic unions have staged demonstrations protesting Nissan's tactics in Brazil and at the Geneva auto show.

DETROIT -- The United Auto Workers is ratcheting up pressure on Nissan in the hopes it may finally succeed at organizing Nissan's  (IW 1000/31) plant in the typically anti-union Mississippi.

It has taken its campaign to the world stage in a bid to pressure Nissan to cease what the UAW has called union-busting tactics.

The UAW 's efforts have won the endorsement of Nissan's Japanese unions and sympathetic unions have staged demonstrations protesting Nissan's tactics in Brazil and at the Geneva auto show.

The UAW is hoping to gain the backing of the powerful French unions of Nissan's partner Renault by bringing workers to Paris this week to describe their plight.

"The UAW's approach in Mississippi has been very innovative and very patient," said Harley Shaiken, a labor expert from the University of California, Berkley.

The aggressive campaign comes as the UAW celebrates a big break in its decades-long efforts to organize the plants of foreign automakers. Volkswagen is currently engaged in talks with the UAW about how to get employees at its Tennessee plant a seat on the German automaker's works council.

The UAW has never managed to organize workers at the plants of foreign automakers except in a handful of joint ventures with unionized General Motors, Ford or Chrysler.

But UAW president Bob King insists the tide is finally turning.

"We've never been this far along in an organizing drive in the South," King said in a recent interview. "It's going really well."

King, a veteran of several failed organizing attempts, said the number of employees supporting the UAW inside Nissan's Canton plant has continued to grow since the latest campaign was launched more than a year ago.

The campaign is being carefully watched by other automakers.

One former official from Honda, who has observed UAW organizing efforts in the past and asked for anonymity, said it is likely the UAW has gained a foothold in Canton because of the widespread use of temporary workers.

That appears to have unsettled the regular employees, who thought they had finally won a measure of job security in a state with the lowest per capita income in the United States.

But those same job security fears could work against the UAW, said Sean McAlinden, chief economist at Michigan's Center of Automotive Research.

"They worry about Mexico," McAlinder said, noting that several automakers -- including Nissan -- will be opening new factories there this year.

The Nissan campaign has attracted the interest of labor leaders looking for a way to gain more leverage over big companies in a global economy that has driven down wages in industrial countries, said Kent Wong, a labor expert at the University of California, Los Angeles.

"I don't know if they are going to be successful," he cautioned.

The UAW faces powerful opposition from the political establishment in Mississippi and from workers who have been raised on a diet of anti-union sentiment.

It has also accused Nissan of employing union-busting tactics like using implicit threats to close the plant if it unionizes, charges Nissan denies.

"Nissan has never violated labor standards and would never tolerate threats or intimidation of our employees," Nissan spokesman Justin Saia said. "Nissan will continue to abide by US labor laws and support the rights of employees to decide whether they wish to be represented by a union."

The standard anti-union playbook being used in Canton isn't working, King insisted.

"They use 'one-on-one' meetings to attack the union and if we call a meeting after work they'll schedule overtime," King said. "But we're still getting support."

Nissan worker Raphael Martinez said one of the reason he supports the UAW is because the union's positive message is focused on making Nissan a better company overall.

"One thing I appreciate about the UAW is that they don't tend to demonize Nissan," Martinez said. "Nissan, on the other hand, tends to demonize the UAW with negative propaganda."

Nissan dismissed the pro-union sentiment as unrepresentative of the bulk of the workforce.

"If you notice, they bring out the same people all the time," said one Nissan executive, who asked not to be identified while commenting on the UAW effort.

-Joe Szczesny, AFP

Copyright Agence France-Presse, 2013

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