CANTON, MISS.: The United Auto Workers — desperate to make inroads in the anti-union South where Toyota, Volkswagen and other foreign automakers have assembly plants — has never tried a unionization drive quite like the one at the Nissan plant here.
It has enlisted thousands of union members in Brazil to picket Nissan dealerships there as the company prepares to co-sponsor the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. The union has sent a team of Mississippi ministers and workers to South Africa, where Nissan has an assembly plant.
Over the next few weeks, a delegation of UAW leaders and supporters will travel to Tokyo and Paris, the headquarters of Renault, Nissan’s corporate partner, to publicize a report by a Cornell University professor that asserts that Nissan’s managers have illegally threatened to close the Mississippi plant if workers vote to unionize.
These efforts are largely directed at Nissan’s part-Brazilian, part-French chief executive, Carlos Ghosn, who said the company prefers communicating with its Mississippi workers without a union.
Closer to home, the actor Danny Glover has embraced the UAW’s cause, speaking at colleges across the South to recruit students to distribute union fliers at Nissan dealerships. The union has also helped create a group of students and community and religious leaders, the Mississippi Alliance for Fairness at Nissan, which includes the NAACP. The alliance often uses the slogan, “Labor Rights Are Civil Rights.”
At a time when the UAW has fewer than one-third of the 1.5 million workers it had in 1979, its organizing push is being watched closely by labor leaders across the country.
“It’s a life-and-death matter for the UAW to succeed in the South,” said Nelson Lichtenstein, a professor and labor historian at the University of California, Santa Barbara. “That’s why they’ve put their best organizers into this campaign.”
For Mississippi, landing Nissan was a coup. The 10-year-old auto plant was the state’s first, and its workforce has climbed to 5,200, making Nissan the state’s second-largest private employer. Blake Wilson, president of the Mississippi Economic Council, the state’s chamber of commerce, praises Nissan for bringing thousands of jobs and donating millions to charities and the Canton school system.