Opinion: Unionizing Efforts at Nissan Remind Us Why the UAW is Unpopular

By Jacob Brown | June 12, 2012
The United Auto Workers have lost membership for decades, watching its numbers fall as automakers have relocated their plants in other NAFTA countries or the south, where unions are largely frowned upon. To compensate, the UAW has tried lobbying workers at foreign automaker plants to organize. They tried at Mercedes-Benz in Alabama; they failed. They tried at Volkswagen in Tennessee; they failed. So once again, the UAW is back at Nissan's door, knocking on it to see if the Japanese automaker's plant workers are interested in joining the union. This time, it's using racial divisions as one of its primary strategies. At Nissan's Canton, Mississippi, plant, workers are paid $1.50 less per hour than the $25 per hour their Smyrna, Tennessee, coworkers make. Both plants manufacture the 2013 Nissan Altima, among several other like-products. But Canton is a predominantly black area with mostly black workers at the Nissan plant. Smyrna has a far greater population of white people, and Nissan's plant reflects this.
Along with the NAACP, the UAW has race-baited the conversation along that Nissan is denying fair wages because of the color of its workers skin. In fact, the NAACP claims Nissan is intimidating its workers from organizing into a union. "The NAACP is here because we support the right of workers to have a voice in their company," says Derrick Johnson, the Mississippi NAACP president, in a statement from the UAW. "Nissan should stop intimidating the workers who are simply asking for a fair process." Nissan's Canton plant is among the top-paying manufacturing plants in Mississippi. But more so, its workers really aren't suffering any losses compared to their Tennessee neighbors. In fact, they're likely making more money in reality. According the information from City-Data.com, the median home value in Canton in 2009 was $87,342, with the median resident household income being $27,497. In Smyrna, the median home value was $158,760, and median household income was $51,919. Based on the cost of living in each area, the Mississippi employees are making out like bandits. "Nissan's wages and benefits are fair and competitive, and Nissan has never laid off a single employee in 30 years it's had manufacturing operations in the U.S.," says spokesman David Reuter to the Detroit News. "Our sales and market share growth, our work force additions, and our financial success have greatly benefited the communities where we operate speak for themselves, and they contrast sharply with the image that the UAW would like to paint of Nissan." The UAW has been quietly talking to groups of workers, trying to get them to organize. The UAW says Nissan drags workers into daily meetings where their bosses dissuade them of unions and "[try] to convince them not to support a union," according to UAW president Bob King. Nissan says it's just a forum to keep workers in the loop as it pertains to business. The world has changed since the events before and during the Great Depression that spurred the formation of the UAW. There are now employee rights laws that didn't exist 80 years ago that enforce much of what union activists lobbied for decades ago. And manufacturing is no longer the core of U.S. industry; it's expensive and can be more so if pensions aren't controlled and no one shows financial restraint, as what happened in the 2009 meltdown of Chrysler and General Motors. So what do Nissan's workers in the South have to gain by joining the UAW? Solidarity, maybe, in an industry that doesn't really work in the good ol' boy system of yesteryear. But mostly just access to a UAW-owned free golf course in Black Lake, Michigan. Sources: Detroit News, City-Data.com
College Dad
College Dad

I think that we're missing a big point with the current tone of the UAW stories and editorials. In the early part of the 20th century, Henry Ford concluded that if he was going to sell a lot of cars then there would have to be people with the income to buy them. So he raised wages, a lot for the time, and he sold huge numbers of cars. The prosperity of US workers fueled almost a century of growth overall. Today we are seeing sort of a reversal. The mood is to applaud cutting wages & benefits and rail against the UAW and other unions. We characterize union members as fat & lazy, overpaid relics of years past. Going along with this we have allowed industry to offshore jobs in spite of continued increases in productivity by US workers. I see most of this as a smokescreen to distract us from the continued gutting of much of the middle class, the one's that should be buying the bulk of the cars and other consumer goods that would get our economy back on track. The unions have shown a willingness to negotiate reasonable concessions to retain jobs and workers should still have the right to join, or not, if offered a chance. If our goal is to find more ways to cut the income opportunities for the middle class, and win the race to the bottom in the global economy, we may find that it is less than sweet in the winners circle. Having a rational discussion about long term goals and how to achieve them would serve us all better than vilifying US workers and the UAW. (Disclaimer: I have no connection with the UAW and have not been represented by a union in the last 35 years. The opinion here does not necessarily reflect those of my employer.)