NASHVILLE, Tenn. - The UAW is using a new weapon in its latest push to organize Nissan's Tennessee auto plant: workers at Nissan's neighbor and rival, Saturn Corp.
Saturn's UAW Local 1853 is sending some of its members, including a union vice president, to help organize Nissan Motor Manufacturing Corp. U.S.A.
Saturn's presence at Nissan in the coming weeks is bound to raise an old question: Who has it better - workers at UAW-represented Big 3 factories, like Saturn in Spring Hill, Tenn., or those at the nonunion Japanese and European transplant factories, like Nissan, 40 miles away in Smyrna, Tenn.?
Rick Martinez, first vice president at Saturn Local 1853, confirmed his activity at Nissan's 6,000-employee car and truck plant. He declined further comment.
The UAW has staffed a small recruiting office near Smyrna since 1989. But it has attracted little interest from Nissan's nonunion workers, whose wages and benefits are similar to those earned by dues-paying union members at Big 3 plants. Nissan assembly line workers earn a base wage of $20.22 an hour; UAW assemblers at the Big 3 earn about $19.00 per hour.
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A spokeswoman for Saturn's Local 1853 said the UAW believes additional staffing was needed to get its message out at the Japanese-owned competitor. The Saturn representatives will tell Nissan's workers how the union works at Saturn, participate in organizing meetings and generally distribute UAW information.
'Maybe with our help the union can have a presence there,' Local 1853 spokeswoman Dora Mack said.
Nissan has been a pebble in the UAW's shoe since the automaker began building its American plant in 1981. In 1989, in a very public organizing drive, Nissan workers rejected the union by more than a 2-to-1 ratio.
That failure stalled the union's effort to organize the growing roster of Japanese transplants in the United States.
Plans at that time were also to organize Toyota Motor Corp.'s then-new car plant in Georgetown, Ky., and the sprawling Honda of America Manufacturing Inc. complex in central Ohio.
The Nissan defeat caused the union to pull in its horns and rethink its strategy.
But since then, nonunion automotive employment has spread. Toyota's Kentucky work force has swelled from about 2,000 in 1989 to 7,000 today, in addition to tens of thousands of new nonunion supplier employees. Toyota also has two more new U.S. plants under construction, and it is expanding its Canadian auto factory, which is also nonunion.
Two German automakers also have opened plants in the United States since then - BMW Manufacturing Corp. in Spartanburg County, S.C., and Mercedes-Benz U.S. International Inc. in Vance, Ala. Neither of those plants is unionized, nor are many of their U.S. suppliers.
Nissan declined to discuss the UAW's latest drive, other than to note that the union tried to organize the plant for 15 years.
The lingering problem for the union, according to auto industry consultant Ron Harbour, president of Harbour and Associates Inc. in Troy, Mich., is simply that the workers at the transplants have no motivation to join the UAW.
'Nissan's wages are as good or better than the Big 3's,' Harbour said. 'Nissan isn't overworking its people with a lot of overtime. Nissan workers have access to nice exercise facilities. There's a banquet hall you can rent for your daughter's wedding for a very nominal fee. The worker there is going to ask, 'What more would I get from a union than having union dues deducted from my check?''
Harbour's recent data probably will become an issue in the Nissan organizing drive. This month, 'The Harbour Report 1997' ranked Nissan as the most productive auto plant in North America for the fourth straight year.
Chuck McDonald, who heads the Nissan organizing effort, cites the Harbour ranking as a reason why Nissan workers will want to unionize this time.
'They control the lines. They control the speed. They control the work assignments,' McDonald says of Nissan management. 'They say the idea is not to work harder but to work smarter. But you know, that kind of high productivity takes a toll on people after a while.'
McDonald said the past few months have seen 'intense interest' in the UAW among Nissan's workers. One reason, he said, is that some Nissan workers are unhappy with their annual bonuses of a few hundred dollars -especially in light of the $10,000 bonuses being paid at Saturn.
If so, bringing Saturn employees into Smyrna could be an effective recruiting tool. Saturn has paid its workers about $10,000 in annual bonuses for the past two years. Local 1853 recently negotiated to increase the ceiling on the bonuses to $12,500 a year.
Privately, management at the Japanese automakers has viewed Saturn's bonuses with some concern. The nonunion auto plants pride themselves on wages that are comparable to the U.S. industry. But the hefty bonuses at Saturn, and at Chrysler Corp. as a result of big corporate profits, are widening the gulf.
Nissan executives recently visited their counterparts at Toyota in Georgetown, according to Toyota sources. The general discussion was about human resources. The topic of Saturn dominated the meeting.
The transplants wonder: How is it possible for a company with a startup investment of $4.5 billion and 8,000 factory employees producing 300,000 cars a year to pay their people $10,000 bonuses?
By contrast, Nissan's factory turned out 420,000 vehicles last year with 6,000 employees - about 4,500 of them hourly workers. And Nissan's capital investment in Tennessee since it arrived in 1981 now totals $1.4 billion.