Local organizer glimpses challenge of building worker power in South

Tastad-Damer outside Nissan’s Canton production plant on the day of the union election. (submitted photo)

Lured by generous tax incentives and low wages, foreign automakers have steadily increased their footprint in Southern states over the last two decades. Their employees earn less than union members at the Big Three domestic automakers, but attempts to organize workers in the South’s new, foreign-owned plants have almost always failed.

The most recent defeat came earlier this month, when workers at Nissan’s Canton, Miss., plant voted by nearly a 2-to-1 margin against forming a union.

The United Auto Workers devoted several years to organizing the Canton facility’s 3,500 workers (3,000 more contract workers at the plant were not eligible to join the union), and the UAW projected confidence as the Aug. 3-4 election approached. But in the weeks leading up to the vote, Nissan unleashed a “vicious campaign … of intense scare tactics, misinformation and intimidation,” UAW President Dennis Williams said.

Twin Cities-based union organizer Diana Tastad-Damer saw that campaign firsthand. An organizer on staff at United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1189, Tastad-Damer spent 10 days on the ground in Mississippi, answering the UAW’s call for help reaching out to Nissan workers and drumming up support for the “Union Yes” campaign. When an organizer familiar with Walmart’s anti-union tactics sounds outraged, it gets our attention. Here’s our interview with Tastad-Damer, which has been edited for length and clarity.

UA: What kind of response did you get from workers you visited in advance of the election?

DT: They were pretty much half and half, but the company sent workers door hangers that said “No Trespassing UAW.” Quite a few people had those on the door, and I obviously didn’t talk to them.

UA: Sounds like door hangers weren’t the only stops pulled out by Nissan’s anti-union campaign.

DT: They had “Vote No” signs and signs that said “Union” with an X through it… Nissan threatened to take away people’s leased cars. They put up billboards, they aired radio ads and TV commercials talking about how many jobs they’ve brought to Mississippi and how people are lucky they chose Mississippi. Nissan even rented huge air conditioners leading up to the vote. They normally don’t have air conditioning in that plant, but for three weeks life was great for everyone.

UA: What kind of influence does this plant have on its surrounding communities, and how did that play out in the organizing campaign?

DT: Working at Nissan is one of the better paying jobs in Mississippi, and the plant employs over 6,000 people, even though half of those are temps. Even making $15 as a temp worker is more than double the state’s minimum wage of $7.25.

UA: So what were workers fighting for?

DT: It was less about wages because their wages were good money in the South. But they’ve seen their pension frozen, their health care premiums go up and their coverage drop. One worker brought his insurance card to the pharmacy, but they told him his account was frozen. It stayed frozen for about six months, and it wasn’t until at one of the captive audience meetings with management where he brought this up … and a day later an HR person went up to him and said it’s been resolved.

UA: What did you hear from workers voting no?

DT: A lot of workers told us Nissan doesn’t have to negotiate with the union, so I’m not going to risk losing my job and have them shut down the plant. What Nissan was telling them was that the plant would be shut down if they voted for the union. Of course, that’s illegal. (The National Labor Relations Board has issued a complaint against Nissan, which disputes the charges.) You can talk about having a voice, but these workers felt the pressure: managers constantly talking to them one on one, hour-long captive audience meetings every day until the vote.

UA: Did you sense something different about the challenge organizing poses in the South?

DT: A Levi’s plant down there is union, and some people drive three to four hours to go to work there because it’s one of the best paying jobs. But for some reason if you want to create a union, it’s a problem.

UA: What do you take back from the experience?

DT: Never trust the company unless it’s in writing and legally binding. The UAW thought they had Nissan in a corner to remain neutral because … Nissan is union in the rest of the world, just not in the U.S. But as soon as they filed, it was bam – hardcore union busting.

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