Dozens at the large Nissan plant in Tennessee will vote on their own union

Dozens of workers among thousands at a Nissan plant in Tennessee will hold a long-delayed vote Thursday on whether to unionize. Those leading the action are hoping for an elusive victory at a foreign-owned auto assembly plant in the traditionally anti-union South.

After years of litigation spanning two presidential administrations, organizers successfully argued that the group of 75 tool and mold technicians qualify for independent representation because they have highly specialized skills for a job that is being done by others in the setup cannot be completed. The Japan-based company has claimed the workers are not sufficiently different from other plant workers to qualify for their own unionized bloc.

Organizers have cited a number of reasons for unionizing at Nissan’s Smyrna plant, about 25 miles outside of Nashville. These include retirement, work-life balance, and health issues that they want to negotiate.

Across the country, several high-profile union campaigns — at Starbucks, Amazon, Apple and other companies — have recently put organized labor back in the spotlight, despite union membership rates hitting an all-time low last year. The number of unionized workers even rose by 1.9% to 14.3 million, but this has not kept pace with higher overall employment rates.

A federal decision in 2021 would have nearly brought the labor movement in Smyrna to a standstill. After that decision was overturned this year, organizers said the election could now be a close campaign rather than an easy win, saying years of waiting have marred the campaign.

A National Labor Relations Board official sided with Nissan in June 2021, ruling that the smaller group of workers could not vote to form a union without involving thousands more workers at the plant. The union did not pursue the facility-wide vote.

But as the US Senate completed its endorsements of the Biden administration’s new appointments, control of the board switched from Republicans to Democrats. The panel overturned the previous ruling last month, giving the union the green light to vote.

Since plant workers first turned to the machinists’ union in 2020, some supporters have quit, others have retired and some have moved to unionized jobs elsewhere, said Tim Wright, Grand Lodge representative for the Southern Territory at the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers.

“This two-year process has chilled this campaign to the point where this is potentially going to be a close election,” Wright said in an interview Tuesday. He said he hopes the campaign will spread the word among other workers.

A spokesman for Nissan, which employs about 7,000 people at the Smyrna plant, said the company believed its workplace was “stronger” “without the involvement of third-party unions” such as the machinists’ union. Still, she stressed that workers have the right to choose whether to join a union, a right that has been enshrined in federal law since the 1930s.

Unions have met opposition from Republican politicians when they try to organize at foreign automakers in the South, including in Tennessee. Still, it doesn’t appear that GOP officials have tried to weigh much on the campaign at Nissan.

Tennessee already has a large union presence at one American automaker: General Motors’ Spring Hill plant has thousands of manufacturing and skilled workers represented by the United Auto Workers union.

In a radio advertisement for the campaign – which featured former University of Tennessee and Pittsburgh Steelers football player Ramon Foster – the machinists’ union emphasized its representation of some workers at the Trane Company, the Tennessee Valley Authority, Arnold Air Force Base, the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, NWI Aero and in the railroad industry.

Nissan works with unionized workers in the rest of the world, but votes for broad unionization at Nissan’s two US plants were not scarce. Workers in Smyrna opposed a plant-wide union under the UAW in 2001 and 1989.

The automaker’s other U.S. assembly plant in Canton, Mississippi, rejected plant-wide representation by the UAW in a 2017 vote.

The margin was significantly smaller in the 2014 and 2019 votes at the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee, where workers twice rejected a plant-wide union under the UAW.

The year after the 2014 vote failed, 160 maintenance workers in Chattanooga won a vote to form a smaller union, but Volkswagen refused to negotiate. The German automaker had argued that the bargaining unit should also include production workers. The result was the plant-wide vote in 2019.

It’s also unclear whether workers at four sprawling new factories that Ford plans to build in Kentucky and Tennessee by 2025 will unionize, with a goal of hiring nearly 11,000 workers. Three of the plants – two in Kentucky, one in Tennessee – will be built with Ford’s South Korean corporate partner SK Innovation to make batteries for electric vehicles. A fourth in Tennessee will make F-Series electric pickups. Dozens at the large Nissan plant in Tennessee will vote on their own union

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