NASHVILLE, Tenn. — A union wants to hold a vote for representation of fewer than 100 workers out of thousands at the Nissan vehicle assembly plant in Tennessee, a move the company opposes because the effort doesn’t stretch more broadly across the facility’s workforce.
The International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers says an overwhelming majority of the 87 tool and die maintenance technicians at Nissan’s plant in Smyrna, about 25 miles (40 kilometers) southeast of Nashville, have signaled their support for unionization. The effort marks the latest foray in the uphill fight for unions to gain traction at foreign-owned auto assembly plants in the traditionally anti-union South.
Whether or not a vote can be held hinges on ongoing arguments in front of the National Labor Relations Board.
An attorney for Nissan argued that the employees are not sufficiently distinct from other plant workers during a virtual hearing Friday, reasoning that any unionization vote would need to extend to about 4,300 production and maintenance employees. An attorney for the union contended that the 87 employees have extremely specialized skills for a job that others at the plant cannot do, making them eligible for their own standalone union representation.
Nissan does work with organized labor in the rest of the world, but votes to unionize broadly at the U.S. two plants have not been close. Workers in Smyrna rejected a plantwide union under the United Auto Workers in 2001 and 1989. The Japan-based automaker’s other U.S. assembly plant in Canton, Mississippi, rejected facilitywide representation by the UAW during a 2017 vote.
“Our history reflects that Nissan respects the right of employees to determine who should represent their interests in the workplace,” Nissan Smyrna spokesperson Lloryn Love-Carter said. “Nissan employees have a very long history of self-representation and voting no to unions.”
The margin was much closer in 2019 and 2014 votes at the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee, where workers twice rejected a factorywide union under the UAW.
The year after the 2014 vote failed, a group of 160 Chattanooga maintenance workers won a vote to form a smaller union, but Volkswagen refused to bargain. The German automaker had argued the bargaining unit needed to include production workers as well. The dust-up led to the 2019 factorywide vote.
Unions also have run into opposition from Republican politicians when they attempt to organize at foreign automakers in the South. Before the 2019 Volkswagen vote, Republican Gov. Bill Lee told employees there in a closed-door meeting that he believes “when I have a direct relationship with you, the worker, and you’re working for me, that is when the environment works the best.”
During the 2014 Volkswagen election, then-U.S. Sen. Bob Corker waited until voting had actually started when he all but guaranteed that the company would announce within two weeks of a union rejection that it would build a new midsized sport utility vehicle at its only U.S. factory, instead of sending the work to Mexico.
At the Nissan plant this time around, the machinists union says workers have cited numerous workplace concerns, from forced overtime to increased health care costs. Laura Ewan, an attorney representing the union, said the workers were excluded from a buyout offer to plant employees in general because of issues hiring people for the specialized jobs.
“A union contract will ensure fair wages, benefits, working conditions and the ability to retire with dignity,” said lead campaign organizer Tim Wright, machinists union Grand Lodge representative.
Tennessee does have a big union presence at an American automaker. The General Motors plant in Spring Hill has about 3,000 production and skilled trades workers represented by UAW.
The machinists union represents about 47,000 tool and die makers and 3,000 automotive manufacturing workers at companies that includes Ford, Penske Truck, Hyundai and Chevrolet.