UAW Smyrna bid comes at bad time for Nissan

NASHVILLE - The UAW's successful application last week for a union election at Nissan North America Inc.'s big car and truck plant in Smyrna, Tenn., could not have come at a worse time for the rebounding automaker.

Over the next several weeks, the plant is scheduled to launch the redesigned Altima sedan - a vehicle critical to Nissan's hopes for U.S. sales growth in 2002.

As UAW organizers attempt to persuade the plant's 4,100 eligible workers to adopt union representation - a quest that has been a divisive issue there for the past 12 years - Nissan is counting on a flawless Altima launch. The goal: to position the car to go head to head with the mid-sized segment leaders, the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord, for the first time.

At the same time, Nissan still is trying to distance itself from the money-losing decade that resulted in its 1999 management takeover by France's Renault SA. Under Renault-appointed President and now CEO Carlos Ghosn, Nissan has been opening the pipeline on new products.

Nissan is spending $2 billion on its U.S. plants, preparing for a foray into full-sized pickups and sport-utilities; a new family of more powerful engines; an all-new minivan; a larger, six-cylinder-powered Altima; and, possibly, another unidentified vehicle in the Maxima class.

Nissan also is changing its approach to manufacturing at the moment. The company is in the earliest stages of a radical manufacturing plan that will make its plants more reliant than ever on the very things unions tend to resist - outsourced assembly and worker flexibility.

Under the plan, Nissan will begin buying large vehicle modules such as front ends and cockpits from suppliers while reorganizing its entire North American component delivery to a 'sequential build' system.

That will require the assembly lines at Nissan's vehicle, engine and transmission plants in the United States and Mexico to work in lock step with parts suppliers across the continent. Nissan wants to build vehicles within 14 days of their being ordered.

No comment

It remains to be seen how a newly unionized work force at the company's biggest plant would complicate this change, or operations in general. It also is by no means certain that the UAW will even succeed in its attempt to organize the Tennessee work force.

Last Thursday, Nissan halted public comment on the UAW bid, saying executives would refrain from speaking to the media until the campaign is over. But earlier in the week, as UAW organizers displayed what they said were cartons of election authorization cards from Nissan's workers, the automaker noted the new effort is the UAW's fourth attempt to organize Smyrna and predicted the bid would be as unsuccessful as the others.

Workers from the plant who spoke publicly in support of the UAW last week were careful to say the union drive was not about wages. In fact, Nissan's nonunion U.S. work force makes about the same as its UAW-represented Big 3 equivalents - between $20 and $25 an hour, excluding benefits. Rather, the rallying cry in this campaign appears to be greater job security in the midst of Nissan's big changes and uncertain future.

'In the past, anytime things got bad for Nissan, the Japanese carried us. If sales slowed down here in the U.S., the Japanese kept up their no-layoff policy. Nobody lost their job,' said Chet Konkle, a 36-year-old welder.

'I don't see that happening anymore. As soon as Carlos Ghosn took over, what did he do? He closed plants and laid people off. I just think we need some assurance on what's going to happen around here in the future.'

Overtime

Layoffs seem to be a remote worry for Nissan, however.

In fact, a more likely rallying cry might be for relief from Nissan's hectic pace: Smyrna has been running overtime since it launched the popular Xterra sport-utility in late 1998. The plant is running nine-hour shifts to keep up with demand for Xterras and Frontier pickups.

Those light-truck sales have buoyed the brand for the past two years as it redesigned its volume-leading Altima. The Smyrna plant is capable of building 200,000 Altimas a year but has never built more than 174,000 in a year. Last year, the model sold just under 137,000 units.

In contrast, Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. Inc. is on track to sell about 350,000 Camrys this year, even as it introduces a new generation, and Honda of America Manufacturing Inc. will produce about 370,000 Accords.

Nissan hopes to bump production of the new Altima up closer to 300,000 a year.

To prepare for higher demand, Nissan has been recruiting more workers at Smyrna. Nissan said last year it would put 1,000 additional people into Smyrna to handle increased volume.

Union supporters claim that there has been a higher than normal turnover rate among those new recruits so far.

The UAW's interpretation: The new employees can't tolerate the hard work and fast pace of an automaker trying to maximize profits while sales are good.

You can reach Lindsay Chappell at lchappell@crain.com

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