Nissan, UAW await Smyrna vote

NASHVILLE, Tenn. - It could be the biggest single unionization of industrial workers in years - or another embarrassing rejection for the UAW.

Last week, both sides were predicting vic-

tory in the Wednesday, Oct. 3, election for UAW representation of 4,100 workers at Nissan Motor Co.'s plant in Smyrna, Tenn., near Nashville.

Bob King, the UAW's vice president for recruitment, said Nissan workers were hearing the UAW call more clearly than in previous organizing efforts there. This is the fourth effort by the union at Smyrna and the second one to reach a vote.

Across town at an event announcing the addition of Maxima production at Smyrna, Emil Hassan, Nissan's top U.S. manufacturing executive, broke the company's self-imposed silence over the union bid to make a brief comment: "The decision is up to employees. But we believe that when it's all said and done, they will vote against the union."

The NUMMI model

Should election results prove Hassan wrong, it may be due in large part to New United Motor Manufacturing Inc.

NUMMI, the Fremont, Calif., joint venture between Toyota Motor Co. and General Motors, is one of three Japanese auto plants in the United States represented by the UAW. During organizing, union recruiters have been citing the NUMMI contract as a possible glimpse of what Nissan might look like with a union contract.

Last week King brought economist Sean McAlinden to Nashville to discuss the wage advantages NUMMI has over Nissan. McAlinden, director of the economics and business group at the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Mich., concludes NUMMI workers earn $2 to $4 an hour more than workers at Nissan.

Including other factors such as holiday pay, performance bonuses and union dues, he caluculates that the difference amounts to a $2,863 annual advantage for NUMMI workers, based on straight-time labor, and up to an $8,535 advantage for those on the night shift who work overtime.

More complicated

Should the vote favor Nissan, the reasons may have been more complex than wages.

Union recruiters say new workers are less interested in joining than older workers, and the Smyrna plant has a large number of relatively new hires. In the past few months, Nissan has hired 300 to 400 new employees in preparation for expanded Altima production.

Another persistent stumbling block for the union has been Nissan's ongoing expansion and job promotion. But that has been the nub of the union's problem with the non-Big 3 automakers: The more Nissan expands in North America, the more opportunity there is for advancement.

Nissan's announcement last week that it will add Maxima production in Smyrna will mean new jobs. At the same time, Nissan has been adding employees to support its $1 billion project to build full-sized trucks in Mississippi, and a $500 million expansion of its engine plant in Decherd, Tenn.

That does not mesh well with union recruiters' argument that Nissan's workers are vulnerable to layoff. And it hasn't helped that, over the past two weeks, the unionized Big 3 have been trimming their production plans and discussing layoffs.

You can reach Lindsay Chappell at lchappell@crain.com

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