Nissan vote signals more trouble for UAW

Oct. 3 UAW vote breakdown
Total eligible voters: 4,785
Total votes cast: 4,610
Votes against the union: 3,103
Votes for the union: 1,486
Challenged ballots: 21
Voided ballots: 15

SMYRNA, Tenn. - It is evidence that, after 12 years of effort, the union still lacks a strategy to organize the non-Big 3 automakers and that its industrywide control of factory wages and benefits is slipping further.

"Yes, I'm surprised," admitted Bob King, the union's aggressive vice president for national organizing, just after hearing the vote count. "It's clearly a setback."

The more than 2-1 ratio vote against unionizing was the same result the UAW had 12 years ago when Nissan's workers voted against the union in 1989. Since then, the UAW has not attempted another election at any U.S. auto plant.

But according to union officials, the times have changed. Twelve years ago, Nissan had been an untested employer, just six years into its American manufacturing strategy. Now, Nissan was supposed to have become a more mature work force, focused on retirement packages, physical workplace issues and income levels.

For the first time, organizers appealed to Nissan's Tennessee workers by focusing heavily on the nuts and bolts of UAW benefits and on the wage differences that a UAW-represented auto plant offers.

A different approach

So sure were King and his organizers that the hard numbers would win over Nissan's 4,785 hourly workers yesterday, the union dispensed with its practice of having what King calls "heavy ground troops" in every corner of the factory, reaching out to workers and distributing information.

Instead, the union relied on a Web site, on telephone banks to call workers at home, and on organizers visiting employees at home at night and over weekends. It hoped appeals from the head of Nissan's Japanese union and supportive comments from a Tennessee Titan pro football player would work. It hoped to reach employees by giving local news media an academic study comparing Nissan's wages against slightly higher pay at the UAW-represented New United Motor Manufacturing Inc. plant in Fremont, Calif., the joint venture between General Motors and Toyota.

Those efforts were not enough, the head organizer admits.

"That was a mistake on my part," said King, standing in the campaign's cinder block garage headquarters, where yellow Post-it notes assigning union organizers to the final days of the campaign still covered the walls.

The union refers to its normal strategy as creating a "public committee" inside the plant. Under the plan, UAW supporters create a preliminary union local and begin acting as though they already represent the work force. But to make it work, the committee must be present in almost every work team, on every shift at the plant.

King said UAW International officials in Detroit had been unconvinced that it was the right time to go ahead with another Nissan campaign but did so in deference to local recruiters. As a result, the public committee was smaller than necessary, he said.

"We thought the issues were so great here we didn't need it," he said. "That was a judgment error on my part."

It isn't working

The union had been confident of winning over Nissan, a company that is planning to add 6,000 U.S. manufacturing employees to the 7,000 it already has. But the Nissan campaign came on the heels of other disappointments.

It mounted a brief recruitment drive in Smyrna in the summer of 2000. Organizers walked away from that effort without calling for an election. Before that, the union spent an entire year attempting unsuccessfully to organize Mercedes-Benz U.S. International Inc., DaimlerChrysler AG's plant in Vance, Ala.

The union also tested interest levels last year at Toyota Motor Manufacturing North America Inc.'s large auto and engine plant in Georgetown, Ky., but closed down that effort after a few weeks. Last month, the UAW opened an organizing office near Honda of America Manufacturing Inc.'s car plant in Marysville, Ohio.

King saidthat Honda, more than any other non-Big 3 plant, shows the most promise for organizing. But, he said, the union still has not determined whether to launch a campaign there.

Reunion

After yesterday's election, both sides appeared eager to sweep the matter away. Nissan's senior vice president of U.S. manufacturing, Dan Gaudette, vowed to patch up quickly the division between the 1,486 workers who supported the UAW and the 3,103 who opposed it.

Gaudette was vague about how Nissan would achieve that, but he said there would be company barbecues and other functions to attempt to reunite the two sides.

But as Gaudette announced the final vote last night, a group of nearly 100 anti-union employees cheered and whistled over their victory. Some raised their hands to signal the number one, chanting, "One team, one team, one team."

In fact, the vote against the union appears to have surprised even Nissan management. In recent days, company insiders had been quietly anticipating a 60 percent vote against the union. The final tally was 67 percent.

"The vast majority of our employees have made it clear that they have no interest in being represented by the UAW," Gaudette said. "We hope now that the UAW will respect their wishes."

That Big 3 gap

Now the union faces a stickier issue. Organizers at Nissan made much in recent weeks about Big 3 factories paying higher wages and benefits than Nissan and the other transplant auto factories. That disparity may come back to haunt the union.

As the industry teeters on the brink of a recession, some wonder whether the Big 3 might begin to ask the union for contract concessions, especially if it looks like their Japanese competitors are going to continue getting away with lower wages.

The UAW has fought for decades to make sure all U.S. automakers embrace the same contract pattern, points out Sean McAlinden, director of the economics and business group at the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Mich. But, says McAlinden, "The pattern is totally shattered."

McAlinden's own recent research on behalf of the UAW suggested that Nissan had fallen between $2 and $4 an hour behind UAW standards.

"The strategy boards at the Big 3 are totally aware of this gap," he says.

Publicly, union officials say they are not worried about GM, Ford Motor Co. or DaimlerChrysler seeking concessions. But head organizer King warns that it is a real threat. That is all the more reason for the union to pursue transplant automakers such as Nissan, he said: Whether the union wins or loses, the threat of a union election pressures the companies to increase their wages and benefits to match the Big 3.

"Nissan will get gains now. Nissan will step up," King predicted, adding, "When we run organizing campaigns, that gap is less. It's because we haven't had an election here at Nissan since 1989 that Nissan has fallen so far behind."

You can reach Lindsay Chappell at lchappell@crain.com

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