CANTON — Supporters of the United Auto Workers say they’re not giving up their fight to unionize a Nissan auto assembly plant in Mississippi after a stinging defeat, even as UAW opponents say Friday’s loss proves workers don’t want the union.
More than 62 percent of workers voting in a two-day election at Nissan Motor Co.’s Canton plant voted against the UAW, with 2,244 ballots against the union according to the National Labor Relations Board. Voting for union representation were 1,307 workers, or 38 percent.
“They know we didn’t need it,” said Nissan worker Kim Barber, an outspoken union opponent who said she was celebrating Friday’s result. “We didn’t need outside interference coming into our plant.”
Amid tears at a union office near the plant just north of Jackson, UAW supporters voiced defiance, with some calling for the election to be rerun after the minimum six-month wait. The union filed charges moments before the polls closed Friday night making new allegations that Nissan had broken federal labor law and intimidated workers into voting “no.” If the labor board agrees, it could order a new election at the plant.
“It hurts,” said union supporter Phillip White. “We ran against a machine; we ran against a monster; we ran against all the lies.”
The UAW has never fully organized an international automaker in the traditionally anti-union South, although it did persuade some maintenance workers to join at a Volkswagen AG plant in Tennessee. The UAW’s lack of influence among southern auto workers has reduced its bargaining power when Detroit automakers lose market share and close plants. After pouring resources into the organizing drive at Nissan, this loss could leave UAW leaders with tough decisions.
“The result of the election was a setback for these workers, the UAW and working Americans everywhere, but in no way should it be considered a defeat,” UAW President Dennis Williams said in a statement.
Kristen Dziczek of the Center for Automotive Research said that although the UAW was the underdog, odds were unlikely to improve soon, as President Donald Trump’s appointees take over the National Labor Relations Board. A corruption scandal involving union employees allegedly taking bribes from a former Fiat Chrysler executive also threatened to spread.
Company spokeswoman Parul Bajaj said employees’ voice has been heard.
“They have rejected the UAW and chosen to self-represent, continuing the direct relationship they enjoy with the company,” she said in a statement. “Our expectation is that the UAW will respect and abide by their decision and cease their efforts to divide our Nissan family.”
UAW Secretary-Treasurer Gary Casteel had telegraphed the likelihood of new charges Monday, when he alleged illegal activity by the company. Among the claims: Nissan provided a faulty contact list to the union, it caused a contract worker to be filed because of his union support, and a manager told workers July 28 that they would lose benefits it they voted for a union.
“Despite claiming for years to be neutral on the question of a union, Nissan waged one of the most illegal and unethical anti-union campaigns that I’ve seen in my lifetime,” Casteel said in a statement Friday.
Bajaj said Nissan lived up to its obligations in providing the list. She generally denied the other charges.
“The UAW is again launching baseless and unsubstantiated allegations against Nissan Canton in a desperate, last-minute attempt to undermine the integrity of the secret ballot voting process,” Bajaj said in a statement.
The labor board has already issued a complaint against Nissan alleging other labor law violations that predate the election, but a judge has yet to rule on those. A decision on the new charges could be months or years away.
The union also could try to encourage a backlash against Nissan outside the United States, where it has tried to build pressure on the company through unions at other plants and supporters in the French government, which owns nearly 20 percent of the Renault Group, Nissan’s business partner. The union said it would “educate” the French government about Nissan’s anti-union campaign.
Nissan has sought to finesse its position against unions in the U.S. while defending its work with organized labor in the rest of the world. Carlos Ghosn, chairman of the Renault-Nissan Alliance, told French lawmakers last year that the alliance “has no tradition of not cooperating with unions.”
Rodney Francis, the plant’s human resources director, said the company has a right to make its case to workers that unionization would hurt management flexibility and make the plant less competitive economically. Republican Gov. Phil Bryant and anti-union workers blamed the UAW for layoffs and plant closings by Detroit’s major automakers.
“The UAW, everything they touched — layoff or closed,” said anti-union worker Kinoy Brown.
For years, union organizers reached out to the majority African-American workforce at the Canton Vehicle Assembly Plant, arguing that workers’ rights are civil rights. They pointed to reduced retirement and health benefits for longtime workers, and lower pay scales for 1,500 Nissan workers who began as contract laborers in recent years. White and other union supporters said after the vote they felt those newer employees, in particular, had been intimidated.
A 2015 study by the Center for Automotive Research found that Nissan paid an average of $44 an hour in pay and benefits, toward the low end of all automakers. Nissan has given pay raises since then.
Workers at Nissan’s plant in Smyrna, Tennessee, voted against UAW representation in 1989 and 2001, but this was the first election at the Mississippi plant. The UAW also lost a 2014 vote among all workers at Volkswagen in 2014 before winning a second vote among 160 maintenance workers.
The UAW’s failed campaign could leave scars. Pro-UAW worker Earnestine Meeks said a co-worker flashed a gun at her, demanding she leave his property during a home visit by union backers recently.
“Nissan will focus on bringing all employees back together as one team, building great vehicles and writing our next chapter in Mississippi,” Bajaj said.
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