Union battles to represent workers at Nissan US factory

Canton (United States) (AFP) –


Efforts to unionize workers at a Nissan factory in the Deep South will reach a climax Friday in a bitter contest that critics say has laid bare a racial divide in the company.

The United Auto Workers union and Nissan both say they are in a position to win the vote among the 3,400 workers in the Mississippi factory which concludes Friday.

The National Labor Relations Board is expected to release results early Saturday of the vote, in which about 3,000 temporary and contract employees working in the plant are not eligible to cast a ballot.

"Right now the 'antis' think they have it and the 'pros' think they have it," factory worker WaShad Catchings told AFP at the UAW's organizing office in a small cluster of commercial buildings across a busy freeway from the Nissan property.

After years of work trying to organize foreign car factories in the South, UAW president Dennis Williams recently told reporters, "The biggest thing you have to overcome in organizing is fear."

“They have a lot of issues at Nissan," he said.

Nissan has been accused of conducting a vicious anti-union campaign at the plant, where 80 percent of the blue-collar work force is African-American.

A complaint by the NLRB Friday accused Nissan of threatening employees with termination because of union activities, and threatening to close the plant if workers voted to unionize, charges Nissan vehemently denied.

"Nissan is running one of the nastiest anti-union campaigns in the modern history of the American labor movement," Gary Casteel, secretary-treasurer of the UAW, said in a recent statement.

- Jobs for depressed region -

The factory sits in what is historically one of the poorest areas of the poorest state in the union, according to government census data.

Companies often choose to locate in the US South, where wages are low, unemployment is high and the states are generally anti-union.

While the pro-union forces managed to ring the plant with supporters as the voting began Thursday, workers opposed to the union have fought back on social media and local talk radio.

The anti-union campaign said the UAW's presence had forced plants to close in other parts of the country and said the union used dues money to support liberal political candidates like Hillary Clinton.

Nissan said the plant, which sits along the freeway just north of the state capital of Jackson, employs 6,400 workers, adding a measure of prosperity to a depressed region.

"The plant has grown significantly," said Kristina Adamski, Nissan vice president of communications.

Adamski denied the company has in any way threatened to close the plant if the UAW wins the election.

Catchings, 37, has worked for Nissan since the plant opened in 2003 and gradually came around to supporting the UAW.

He said in an interview the company seems to have different standards for its plants in Mississippi.

"We don't want to bankrupt the company but we want to negotiate," he said. "We want a seat at the table. Let's negotiate. That's not too much to ask."

The Delta, as the region is known, is considered the birthplace of the Blues, and residents are predominantly African-Americans, the descendants of the slaves and later poor share croppers who made the region one of the most important cotton-growing regions in the country.

Machines now harvest the cotton but poverty and limited education have limited economic opportunities.

The UAW has leveraged its history of support for the Civil Rights movement to establish a foothold in the community.

"I don't know who is going to win," said Harley Shaiken, a labor expert at the University of California-Berkeley.

"But I know the union isn't going away. They have succeeded in building a real social movement around the plant."