Transplant growth lures, stymies UAW

Growth hinders UAW
Plant expansions have complicated more than one UAW organizing campaign.

1989: UAW attempts to organize Nissan in Smyrna, Tenn., as the company prepares to double the plant’s size.

1998: As the UAW seeks inroads into German-owned auto plants in the United States, BMW Manufacturing Corp. in South Carolina announces an expansion.

2000: Mercedes-Benz U.S. International announces a plan to double its work force as the UAW pushes to organize the Alabama plant.

2001: UAW calls for an election at Nissan as the automaker recruits hundreds of workers for its Tennessee operations.

SMYRNA, Tenn. — The National Labor Relations Board will rule within a month on whether about 1,000 workers at Nissan’s two U.S. factories must be included in the UAW’s campaign for union representation.

Nissan North America Inc. wants them included, and the union doesn’t.

The situation illustrates the difficulty the UAW has had in organizing the non-Big 3 auto industry of North America in the past 20 years. The element that attracts the UAW to the transplant automakers — their ever-expanding work force — is the thing that stymies its organizing efforts.

Labor experts and organizers say newer workers, especially outside of the heavily unionized Great Lakes region, are less likely to embrace a union.

For the past two decades, the Japanese- and German-owned auto plants in North America have been adding workers to their payrolls as they expand operations.

“There is clearly a long honeymoon period in their labor relations,” said Steve Babson, a labor specialist at Wayne State University in Detroit. “The transplants bring in ever-younger employees — healthy, energetic people who have nothing to worry about. At that stage, they feel they don’t need a union.”

Who gets to vote?

In Nissan’s case, the UAW is attempting for the fourth time — the UAW counts it as its third effort — to organize Nissan’s Smyrna, Tenn., car and truck assembly plant. It has called for a quick election, which could be held as early as late September.

To be certified at Nissan, the UAW must win the votes of more than 50 percent of the eligible work force. The question facing the UAW: 50 percent of what number?

In its petition, the union estimated the Nissan work force consists of 4,100 eligible employees. Nissan has told the NLRB that the actual number is closer to 5,000.

According to union organizers, Nissan believes the bargaining unit should include some line supervisors at the Smyrna plant, as well as several hundred workers at Nissan’s engine assembly plant in Decherd, Tenn. The larger the pool of eligible workers, the more difficult the UAW’s organizing effort.

Nissan has declined to discuss the union campaign publicly.

Decherd and Smyrna both have been hiring hundreds of workers in the past few months in preparation for a major U.S. production expansion. The automaker is in the early stages of a plan to add 1,000 workers to the Smyrna plant and another 1,000 workers at Decherd.

New workers less inclined

According to one UAW organizer who asked not to be identified, the workers tend to be younger and more eager to please the company than the existing work force.

The Canadian Auto Workers union faced a similar challenge this summer when it held an election at Toyota Motor Manufacturing Canada Inc.’s plant in Cambridge, Ontario. The CAW claimed the pool of eligible Toyota workers numbered 2,000. Toyota, which is preparing to add two vehicles at the Cambridge plant, claimed the work force was between 2,500 and 3,000.

In late July, realizing it lacked sufficient votes, the CAW withdrew its application.

In Alabama last year, the UAW withdrew from active organizing efforts at Mercedes-Benz U.S. International Inc. That auto plant is hiring and training 2,000 workers as it prepares nearly to double its production capacity.

Said Babson: “If I were a Nissan manager faced with an organizing effort, and I had it in my business plan to hire a lot of new people, I think I would probably go ahead and pull in those new recruits to dilute any growing union sentiment.”

You can reach Lindsay Chappell at lchappell@crain.com

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