LINDSAY CHAPPELL

How GM and Nissan avoided a UAW thorn

Lindsay Chappell is the Mid-South bureau chief for Automotive News.Lindsay Chappell is the Mid-South bureau chief for Automotive News.
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A labor taboo still exists in the North American auto industry, and Nissan and General Motors sidestepped it this week.

GM revealed that it will buy Nissan's compact commercial vans to provide Chevrolet with a competitor to Ford's Transit Connect compact van.

Nissan builds its NV200 compact van in Cuernavaca (kwehr-nah-VAH'-kah), Mexico. During their chat with the press on Tuesday, Chevy execs kept tripping over the unfamiliar Mexican city name. But the city's name might as well be pronounced "No-es-un-UAW-issue."

The Detroit 3 are prohibited by UAW agreement from sourcing vehicles in the United States from non-UAW factories. Nissan is a powerhouse of nonunion automaking in the United States, having roaring factories in Tennessee and Mississippi where workers simply don't want to pay union dues. Both of those factories are under scrutiny at the moment as union organizers say Nissan is interfering with the workers' right to unionize.

But Cuernavaca is OK. It's in Mexico.

This issue has come up many times. In the 1980s, when GM wanted a version of the Toyota Corolla, Toyota agreed to build cars at a UAW-represented old GM plant in Fremont, Calif.

A short time later, when Chrysler wanted Mitsubishi to build its dealers small cars in Illinois, the work force was declared UAW while the plant was under construction. When GM needed compact vehicles from Suzuki, their joint-venture factory in Canada was preordained to be a union work force -- Canadian Auto Workers this time. Nissan and Ford arranged to share a new minivan in 1989, but Ford had to build it on a Ford assembly line in Ohio. Nonunion Nissan workers in Tennessee stamped the body panels, but that didn't receive a lot of attention.

The prohibition got a little fuzzy in more recent years when Mercedes and Chrysler were still partners. The pair briefly shared Sprinter vans imported from Germany and partly completed at a nonunion Freightliner factory in South Carolina. The UAW was just pronouncing the word "uh-uh" when the deal came unraveled and rendered it a moot point.

You wonder at the luck of Nissan this time.

The NV200 easily could have been built in Mississippi, in which case the Chevy plan would have been harder to work out.

You could even argue that it might have been more logical to produce the vans in Mississippi. The NV200 is part of Nissan's expansion into commercial vehicles, and Mississippi already produces the larger NV2500 van. And the NV200 will be produced in an electric variant, using big lithium ion battery packs and motors trucked down from Tennessee. Mexico is a long way to haul those delicate batteries.

But the NV200 wound up in Mexico. And luckily so, in this case, for Nissan and GM.

You can reach Lindsay Chappell at lchappell@crain.com.

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