Automotive Assembly / Columns / The Editorial

Fresh Meat for the UAW?

If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. That appears to be the mantra of the United Auto Workers this year.

If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. That appears to be the mantra of the United Auto Workers this year.

In early March, UAW officials met with workers from Nissan Motor Co.’s assembly plant in Smyrna, TN, to lay the groundwork for a third union representation vote. Plant employees turned down the UAW by a 2-to-1 margin in 2001. A 1989 attempt to organize the plant also failed.

Some 400 miles southwest of Smyrna, the UAW has also been actively pursuing Nissan’s assembly plant in Canton, MS, since last spring. That facility has never had an election on whether to allow union representation.

Back in Tennessee, Volkswagen announced on March 15 that it was talking with the UAW about setting up a German-style labor board at the carmaker’s assembly plant in Chattanooga.

If the UAW succeeds at any of these facilities, it would be quite a victory. Historically, assembly plants in the South have been hostile to unions. Indeed, it’s no coincidence that Nissan, VW, Hyundai, Kia, Mercedes, BMW and Toyota located their newest U.S. assembly plants in Southern states with right-to-work laws.

Nevertheless, UAW President Bob King has made organizing a foreign auto plant one of his top priorities, and it’s not hard to see why. The UAW has seen a steady loss of membership since the 1970s. Membership topped 1.5 million in 1979, but fell to 540,000 in 2006. After the Great Recession and the Chapter 11 reorganization of GM and Chrysler, the UAW now represents just 390,000 active members and more than 600,000 retired members covered by OEMs’ pension and medical care plans.

For autoworkers at Nissan, VW and other transplant facilities, the benefits of UAW membership are not as clear. However, workers at Nissan’s Smyrna facility may be warming up to the idea.

Several hundred employees reportedly attended the most recent organizing meeting. A major bone of contention is the automaker’s expanded use of temporary employees, who are paid much less than their Nissan counterparts while performing the same or similar work.

King says the transplants have nothing to fear from the UAW, which has worked hard to be a better, more flexible partner with management. We shall see. A reputation for blocking productivity-enhancing technology, impeding efforts to get lean, and protecting subpar workers is not easily shaken.

 I’ve toured the BMW assembly plant in Spartanburg, SC, and the Nissan plant in Canton, MS, and they seem to be doing just fine without the UAW. On the other hand, I’ve also toured a major Midwestern manufacturing facility where unionized assemblers were allowed to wear “Management Sucks” T-shirts. Regardless of how well management might have been running the facility, such clear antagonism did not leave me feeling good about the company, its workers or its products. I wouldn’t want to see that at Nissan, VW or anywhere else. 

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