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Racially Charged Nissan Vote Is a Test for U.A.W. in the South

This week, it will be determined whether or whether not Nissan will be unionized

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More than 3,500 employees will be voting this week on whether to unionize the sprawling Nissan plant. However, the concern is more immediate: How much they can expect from their employer in a world of diminishing prospects for blue-collar workers — not just in pay and benefits, but also in status and respect.

Conversations with several workers reveal a workplace bitterly divided on these questions. In one camp are those who feel that Nissan has provided a standard of living that would have been unattainable had the company not opened its nearly mile-long plant in Canton more than a decade.

In another camp are those workers who believe they should not be asked to grade the company on the curve that is Mississippi’s low-wage economy. 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.

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

The U.A.W.  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.

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Nissan portrays the U.A.W. as self-interested. A slide presentation run repetitively inside the plant states, “It costs much money to run a union!” and concludes, “That is why the U.A.W. is here — it wants a piece of your paycheck.”

In an ad campaign, Nissan testifies to its efforts to improve the lives of its workers. One ad features an African-American supervisor who describes struggling to pay her bills as a single mother before landing at Nissan, who later promoted her and even helped her finish college.

Managers have also held frequent discussions with workers in which they make similar suggestions about how a union could hurt job security. Nissan says the meetings are intended to counter misinformation.

On Friday, a regional director of the National Labor Relations Board issued a complaint against Nissan, charging, among other things, that the company had illegally warned workers that the plant could close if they chose to unionize.

At a meeting of workers at the local U.A.W. office last week, union supporters fumed about a recent slide presentation in which managers explained that Nissan could not guarantee most workers their old jobs in the event of a strike.

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