By BILL ONASCH
The United Auto Workers’ organizing drive at the giant Nissan plant in Canton, Miss., once showed promise of becoming the biggest union victory in the Deep South since the United Food & Commercial Workers won bargaining rights—and a contract—at Smithfield’s huge hog plant in Tar Heel, N.C., in 2008. A win at Nissan would have been the first at a Japanese auto company “transplant” in the U.S.
The 4.7 million square foot facility, with annual capacity for assembling 450,000 vehicles, opened 14 years ago and utilizes a workforce of up to 6400 during production peaks. However, this includes hundreds of managers and professionals and more than 2000 contract workers provided by Kelly Services and not directly employed by Nissan. The bargaining unit established by the National Labor Relations Board included about 3500 regular Nissan production and ancillary employees.
According to Nissan, 46 percent of management is “minority;” 62 percent of the workforce is “diverse.” But multiple sources report that about 80 percent of those who were eligible to vote are African American. Historically, Black workers, North and South, have proven to be more receptive to unionization than their white coworkers. But every campaign is unique and demographics alone don’t determine the outcome.
Organizers have long realized that unions don’t organize workers—bosses do. Treatment issues usually mean more than dissatisfaction with wages. The Nissan workers are not working for poverty wages like those in Tar Heel once were, or the fast-food workers fighting for “15 and a Union” are today. Their relatively high pay for Mississippi, where unions are rare, make those jobs sought after. But treatment is another matter.
As early as 2005, tiny groups started clandestine meetings to discuss the need for a union and decided to contact the UAW. Proceeding cautiously, by 2010 a reliable ongoing organizing committee representing most departments had been established.
As Nissan came to realize they faced a real threat, they began to implement standard measures of spreading fear and intimidation. In early 2015, citing concerns over labor relations guidelines of the multi-nation Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the State Department offered to mediate the disputes in Canton—promptly rejected by the company. Later that year, the NLRB issued complaints against Nissan and Kelly for illegally threatening to close the plant if an “outside” union got in. That complaint is still outstanding and the union has since filed several additional charges.
UAW seeks community allies
After the NLRB involvement, the field organizers were directed by Detroit to reach out for allies in the community and sympathetic mass organizations. They did a good job in pulling together a broad coalition called the Mississippi Alliance for Fairness at Nissan, which included other unions and civil rights, church, student, and environmental groups. They carried out civil disobedience actions that convinced Nissan to reinstate a fired UAW worker in the plant.
This past March, the Alliance organized a 5000-strong march and rally in Canton that brought in workers from around the country—and Nissan workers from Brazil—to show solidarity. The rally also featured prominent speakers such as Bernie Sanders and Danny Glover.
Such actions are vital to winning, whether it be initial organizing campaigns or struggles by established unions. But the very success of the Alliance appears to have led the top UAW leaders to rush a premature bid for an election. The UAW turned in authorization cards for a small majority of Nissan workers. A cardinal rule of successful organizing is to expect that some support will be lost in a vicious company campaign, and you will likely need at least 70 percent on board from the beginning. Only after filing did the UAW flood Canton with organizers to make crucial home visits that should have been done months in advance.
It didn’t help that the election came soon after the well publicized defeat of a Machinists (IAM) attempt to organize a Boeing plant in South Carolina. And just days before the vote, a rare scandal involving collusion between a Fiat-Chrysler manager and a UAW official in Detroit to embezzle funds from a joint training center was making headlines.
The United States has the most repressive labor laws of any industrialized “democracy.” These make it difficult for even the best-led organizing drives to succeed. Winning only guarantees the right to bargain with the employer. Many never succeed in getting a first contract. Failure to win a contract within the first year can lead to a new election to decertify the union.
While many good things were done right at Nissan, the end game chosen by the Solidarity House bureaucracy certainly can’t be called well led. But that won’t come as a shock to those familiar with the evolution of what was once America’s most influential union.
In competition with other unions, the United Auto Workers has long had thousands of members in the aircraft and farm equipment industries. More recently, they have organized university grad students. I pay dues to UAW Local 1981—the National Writers Union.
But the union’s bread and butter has always been the most important manufacturing industry in the world’s biggest economy—auto. The UAW was forged in the 1930s as part of the CIO’s turbulent organization of mass-production industries that had been largely ignored by AFL craft unions.
This was a time of mass unemployment and success depended on winning sympathy—and often active support—from the jobless. An early turning point in auto industry organizing was the 1934 Toledo Auto-Lite strike, initiated and largely led by socialists in the Lucas County Unemployed League. Unionism during that period took on the character of a broad social movement that could advance the interests of all workers.
Often attacked by police and the National Guard, the workers used bold tactics to compel employer recognition and negotiations—like sit-down strike occupations of the workplace and mass picketing to block plant gates. Those tactics were later outlawed by the Supreme Court and the Taft-Hartley Act. In the 70 years since Taft-Hartley was enacted, labor’s perfidious Democrat “friends” have done nothing to change that repression of our most effective worker power.
From militancy to concession bargaining
The UAW’s one-time domination in their industry made them arguably the most important U.S. union, a pace-setter in collective bargaining that created the semi-mythical “middle class.” At their peak, the UAW had 1.5 million members—the lion’s share in auto. Now they have a little more than 400,000.
Today, coming off record sales in the U.S. market, there are only about 900,000 remaining American jobs directly related to the auto industry. There are a number of factors for these dwindling numbers—technology, imported vehicles, and off-shoring being the biggest.
From World War II to the late Sixties, the Big Three automakers—General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler—were the dominant domestic producers of cars and light trucks, and there were very few imports. The UAW had national contracts covering all of their plants.
A one-time socialist, Walter Reuther was elected president by an Administration Caucus that continues to rule the UAW to this day. With a wage formula of three percent annual productivity raises plus cost-of-living adjustments secured, the union concentrated on expanding “fringe benefits” eventually winning such measures as good pensions with “thirty-and-out” early retirement; comprehensive health insurance including families and retirees; and supplementary unemployment benefits to maintain 90 percent of pay during lay-offs.
Beginning in the mid-Sixties, Japanese imports began to fill a niche long neglected by the Big Three—smaller, more fuel-efficient cars. Belated initial attempts by American companies to compete in this market were plagued by design, quality, and safety problems.
Soon, major Japanese companies like Toyota, Honda, Mazda, and Datsun (later rebranded Nissan) started offering a full line of cars and light trucks. And they began opening so-called “transplants” to build them in the U.S. and Canada. More recently, Korean-based Hyundai/Kia have opened U.S. operations and have become major players. German-owned Benz, BMW, and Volkswagen also now build in the USA.
While these “foreign” companies were all unionized in their home countries, they were determined to remain “union free” in North America. With the sole exception of a small group of maintenance workers at VW’s Chattanooga factory, the UAW has not organized any of the transplants since VW’s short-lived plant producing Rabbits in Pennsylvania in the late Seventies.
The UAW’s early strategy was to defend the Big Three both by promoting Buy American and adopting a Partnership approach to make these global giants “competitive.” This included new working conditions emulating so-called “Japanese” quality production—actually borrowed from 1920s methods at General Electric.
Soon, UAW plants started competing with each other to keep jobs—so-called “whip-sawing.” GM and Ford spun off their parts divisions from the national contracts. And when NAFTA was launched in 1994, the union’s American “partners” began a massive transfer of both parts and assembly work to Mexico. This led to General Motors’ having more workers in Mexico than in the United States.
That only accelerated the UAW’s concession bargaining—leading to debilitating historic give-backs in the 2007 Big Three national contracts. To relieve the companies “retiree burden,” the union agreed to accept a final lump sum contribution to establish a retiree insurance trust to be managed by the UAW. Current active workers kept their wage and pension benefits, but all new hires would be paid at half the “legacy” wage and would be enrolled in a much inferior retirement plan. Hardly more than a year later, the new Obama administration dictated further give-backs and plant closings in “managed bankruptcies” at GM and Chrysler. Italian-based Fiat acquired ownership of Chrysler.
All this certainly made the Big Three more competitive—at the expense of Big Three workers. The same give-backs also made the UAW very noncompetitive in trying to organize the transplants. For eight years, the starting pay for Big Three UAW members was less than what new hires got at foreign owned rivals like Nissan.
“Partnership” is an enfeebling, ultimately fatal disease for unions. The only cure is a return to the class-struggle perspective that won the CIO battles establishing once mighty unions like the UAW.
Photo: Rogelio V. Solis / AP