CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. (CN) – Nissan has defeated the United Auto Workers’ attempt to unionize the auto plant in Canton, Mississippi, garnering No votes from 63 percent of the 3,551 workers who voted in the two-day election, marred by acrimonious, blistering statements from both sides.
The UAW, the nation’s largest union, attributed its defeat to intimidation and misrepresentation by management, including mandatory meetings at which workers were subjected to anti-union messages and threats of losing their jobs.
Nissan said the workers have spoken, and opposed unionization because the company has treated them fairly, paid them well, and employees prefer to have a direct relationship with the company.
“We appreciate the National Labor Relations Board’s role in conducting a fair election,” said Nissan spokeswoman Parul Bajaj said, and we believe this outcome positions Nissan to be competitive in the future.”
UAW Secretary-Treasurer Gary Casteel said the union was “disappointed but not surprised by the outcome in Canton. Despite claiming for years to be neutral on the question of a union, Nissan waged one of the most illegal and unethical anti-union campaigns that I’ve seen in my lifetime.”
As the voting on the plant’s manufacturing floor wound to a close Friday, UAW filed more complaints with the National Labor Relations Board, claiming, among other things, that Nissan gave the union UAW an inaccurate list of workers’ names and contact information.
For months, celebrity endorsements, grassroots canvassing and ads on TV, internet and radio probed feelings and kept attention of Canton, a predominantly black town of 13,000 people.
The UAW has been unable to unionize any of the Nissan plants in the United States, including the 6,400-employee factory it has operated in Canton since 2003.
The vote in many ways was a sign of the times. When the Great Migration of African Americans began a century ago, millions fled the South and its Jim Crow laws and settled in the Rust Belt, particularly in Detroit, where Henry Ford promised $5 a day to any worker, black or white, who could weld, bend and bolted together the nation’s automobiles. Labor unions became an early, and eventually powerful force in what would become known, two generations later, as the Civil Rights Movement.
Now U.S. manufacturing has moved South, to right-to-work states, where unions are debilitated.
Labor saw the fight in Canton as a bitter contest in which Nissan tried, and was able, to keep its predominantly African-American labor pool as low-cost as possible.
“This could go down as one of the most vicious, and illegal, anti-union crusades in decades,” Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders wrote in an opinion peace in The Guardian days before the vote.
In March, the Independent senator who caucuses with the Democrats led a march on behalf of the workers, joined by actor Danny Glover.
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 it, and 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,” Sanders 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 the UAW website.
In the past three 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, union opponents argued that Nissan had brought good wages and contributed to the revitalization of Monroe County. The New York Times reported in the days before the vote that many Nissan employees were earning twice the wages, or more, than they had earned before Nissan came to town.
In its 14 years in Canton, Nissan 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 questioned whether the UAW could really provide job security.
Latino said that joining UAW would be a gamble. He said the union’s “track record over the last few decades has not been good.”
A Facebook video produced by Nissan claimed that three unionized auto plants not operated by the Big Three automakers – General Motors, Ford and Fiat Chrysler – have shut down.
Latino said the UAW is targeting the South because its membership is declining, and the South is the manufacturing area of 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. Nissan spokeswoman Bajaj said the absence of unions in Nissan’s U.S. plants is a matter of workers’ choice.
“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.”
The UAW filed complaints with the NLRB during the unionization campaign, accusing it of unfair labor practices. It claims plant managers threatened to fire workers and threatened that the plant would shut down if workers organized.
Bajaj called that a common union tactic.
“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.