Bitter NY Times Joins With UAW Union, Accuses Nissan of Racial Bias, Scare Tactics

New York Times correspondent Noam Scheiber, former editor for the liberal New Republic magazine who now covers labor for the paper, sounded rather bitter about another autoworker union setback in the South, under the loaded headline “U.A.W. Accuses Nissan of ‘Scare Tactics’ as Workers Reject Union Bid.” In Times-world, if unions lose, something must be fishy.

In a test of labor’s ability to expand its reach in the South, workers at a Nissan plant in Mississippi overwhelmingly rejected a bid to unionize, an election that the union quickly criticized.

Out of roughly 3,500 employees at the Canton-based plant who voted Thursday and Friday, more than 60 percent opposed the union. It was an emphatic coda to a yearslong organizing effort underwritten by the United Automobile Workers, which has been repeatedly frustrated in its efforts to organize auto plants in the region.

Scheiber’s sour grapes had an awfully thin flavor. No fraud is ever suggested. The very fact that the company fought back was disturbing.

The union accused the company of waging an unusually aggressive fight against the organizing effort. “Perhaps recognizing they couldn’t keep their workers from joining our union based on the facts, Nissan and its anti-worker allies ran a vicious campaign against its own work force that was comprised of intense scare tactics, misinformation and intimidation,” Dennis Williams, the U.A.W. president, said in a statement after the vote.

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The election campaign at the plant, where a large majority of workers are African-American, frequently took on racial overtones. Some employees alleged that white supervisors dispensed special treatment to white subordinates, a charge the company emphatically denied.

For their part, anti-union workers highlighted the U.A.W.’s contributions to local civil rights and religious groups, accusing the union of seeking to buy support in the African-American community.

In the end, though, basic economics combined with a fear of change may have carried the day. Veteran workers at the plant make about $26 per hour, typically only a few dollars less than veteran workers represented by the union at the major American automakers, and well above the median wage in Mississippi.

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At one point leading up to the vote, managers delivered a slide presentation warning that in the event of a strike, most employees who walked out would not be guaranteed jobs afterward. Many workers appeared to find the presentation alarming, even though strikes are rare in the industry and replacing production workers could be difficult.

Another manager emphasized in a meeting that Nissan could decide not to automatically deduct workers’ union dues, in which case the union would end up sending workers a regular “bill.”

“It was just to deter people from joining, was what I’m getting out of it,” said Earnestine Mayes, a union supporter. “No one wants to sit there and pay that bill every week.”

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Coinciding with the vote on Friday, the union filed a round of new charges about the company’s behavior, including providing the union with faulty voter information, keeping workers who were engaged in organizing activity under surveillance and rating workers according to the extent of their union support.

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Over all, the union was hobbled in its ability to respond to the company’s message to workers. Beyond the question of its contributions to local groups, which the union said were similar to contributions it has made to civil rights and religious groups for decades, anti-union workers dwelled on the indictment last week of a former Fiat Chrysler labor relations official accused of skimming millions of dollars from a training facility to benefit himself and a former U.A.W. counterpart.

Scheiber also played the race card before the vote on Thursday.

Union supporters complain that the company has been stingy with benefits and bonuses, that workers on the production line are pressured to sacrifice safety to keep the line moving briskly, and that supervisors arbitrarily change policies about discipline and attendance.

And another issue looms awkwardly over the forthcoming vote: race. A large majority of the nearly 6,500 workers at the Nissan plant are African-American. One does not have to search hard for racial overtones.

Along with some of her co-workers, Ms. Matthews, who is black, claimed that white supervisors rewarded white workers who were their friends with cushier assignments. “You’ve got Billy Bob as your manager, you go duck hunting, possum hunting together,” she said.

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The U.A.W., for its part, has taken pains to highlight the campaign’s racial dimension. In its news release announcing the impending vote, it quoted a worker who accused Nissan of violating African-Americans’ labor rights even while marketing cars to them.

The union has also forged close alliances with local black pastors and community leaders, whose mantra has been that the ability to form a union is a civil right.

Anti-union workers at the plant have accused the U.A.W. of buying such support with tens of thousands of dollars in contributions to local civil rights and religious groups. The union says it has contributed to such groups for decades.

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In some ways the sensitivity about race may have prevented the organizing campaign from becoming more divisive than it otherwise might have.

During the U.A.W.’s last major campaign in the South, a losing effort at a Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tenn., in 2014, much of the state’s political class conveyed relentless hostility. A conservative group put up billboards tying the U.A.W. to “liberal politicians” including President Barack Obama and suggesting that Chattanooga would go the way of bankrupt Detroit if the union gained a foothold.

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Still, workers say there is more than one way to divide them than along racial lines -- namely, by inciting fear. And Nissan -- which unlike Volkswagen before it has refused to stay neutral in the union campaign -- has not forsworn this tactic.

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Business Coverage Unions Race Issues New York Times United Auto Workers
Clay Waters's picture