(CN) – Drawing the attention of politicians and labor interests nationwide, workers at the Nissan plant in Canton, Mississippi entered voting booths Thursday and Friday to cast their secret ballots in a decision that could see one of the nation’s largest unions expanding its reach beyond Motor City.
The voting booths, set up on the manufacturing floor by the National Labor Relations Board, are where thousands of Nissan workers will decide whether to band together and be represented by the United Auto Workers, or UAW.
Voting will conclude at 7 p.m. Friday, and results are expected around midnight.
For months, celebrity endorsements, grassroots canvassing and ads on TV, internet and radio made it feel like a political election season had descended on the area around the predominately black town of 13,000 people.
At question: Should workers at the 6,400-person plant that make Nissan vehicles like the Altima, Titan and Murano unionize and allow the UAW to represent them? Or should things at the Mississippi plant continue the way they’ve been since 2003, the way Nissan’s other American plants operate – union-free?
In a way, the vote is a sign of the times. Decades before, during the Great Migration, millions of blacks fled the South and its Jim Crow laws and settled in the Rust Belt, in places like Detroit, nicknamed Motor City, where union workers welded, bent and bolted together the nation’s automobiles.
Now, manufacturing has moved south to right-to-work states, where unions currently have less of a presence.
In Canton, advocates of unionization see a bitter contest in which Nissan has attempted to keep its predominately black labor pool as low cost as possible.
“This could go down as one of the most vicious, and illegal, anti-union crusades in decades,” U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., wrote in an op-ed in The Guardian this week.
In March, the former Democratic presidential candidate led a march on behalf of the workers, where actor Danny Glover of “Lethal Weapon” fame also lent his star power.
While unions represent Nissan’s workers in 42 of the company’s 45 global plants, Sanders said, Nissan threatened to move its Canton plant if workers organized and it inundated workers with anti-union videos, briefings and one-on-one meetings at work.
“Large corporations like Nissan like to set up shop in states like Mississippi because they know that when safety nets are frayed, and people hit hard times, they’re more likely to accept low wages and poor working conditions,” he wrote. “They know how to exploit human misery and insecurity, and turn them into high profits.”
While Nissan markets itself as a “socially responsible carmaker,” its business practices echo Mississippi’s past, according to Rahmeel Nash, a technician at the Canton plant.
“Behind the scenes, the company is violating the rights of the African-American workforce that makes those cars,” he said in a statement on UAW’s website.
Over the past five years, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration levied fines against Nissan’s Canton plant after it found five safety violations, four of them serious.
Meanwhile, the anti-union voices argue Nissan’s presence brought good wages and contributed to the revitalization in Monroe County, Mississippi.
In the 14 years that Nissan has been in Canton, the plant never went through layoffs, and it offers some of the highest-paying manufacturing jobs in the area, according to Russ Latino, state director for Mississippi’s Americans for Prosperity Foundation.
Union opponents question if UAW could provide the job security that a union promises.
According to Latino, joining UAW is a gamble. UAW’s “track record over the last few decades has not been good,” he said.
A Facebook video produced by Nissan claims that three auto plants not operated by the big three automakers – General Motors, Ford and Fiat Chrysler – that had union representation all shut down.
Furthermore, Latino said UAW’s membership rolls have grown thin and it wants to remain valuable and relevant into the future.
“It’s clear that the UAW has tried to get into southern automotive plants,” he said.
The plant at Canton is diverse – 46 percent of the managers are minorities. And the lack of unionization in Nissan’s American plants is a matter of choice, according to Parul Bajaj, spokeswoman for Nissan Motor Co.
“The establishment of unions in other countries around the world is much different from the established process with the National Labor Relations Board,” Bajaj said. “For example, in China and Brazil, unionization is required by law. In the U.S., employees decide who should or should not represent them. Nissan respects and supports employees in this process.”
Meanwhile, UAW has filed complaints with the NLRB against Nissan’s management in Canton, alleging the company used unfair labor practices to discourage workers at the Canton plant from unionizing.
The union claims managers at the plant threatened to fire workers and threatened that the plant would shut down if workers organized.
Bajaj said filing a complaint with the NLRB is a common tactic with unions who want to organize a factory.
“UAW wants the company to be silent through the process,” she said, “which we won’t do because we have a perspective as well.”
In a July 28 order, the NLRB consolidated UAW complaints and said a hearing will be held at a date and time to be determined. Responses to the complaint must be filed by Aug. 11.