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OM in the News: Mississippi’s “Right-to-Work” vs. the UAW

October 11, 2013
A Canton Nissan worker signing a petition calling for union recruitment

A Canton Nissan worker signing a petition calling for union recruitment

The United Automobile Workers, desperate to make inroads in the anti-union South where Toyota, Volkswagen and other foreign automakers have assembly plants — has never tried a unionization drive quite like the one at the Nissan plant here in Canton, Miss.,” writes The New York Times (Oct. 7, 2013). It has enlisted thousands of union members in Brazil to picket Nissan dealerships there and sent a team of Mississippi ministers and workers to South Africa, where Nissan has an assembly plant, to try to embarrass the company with accusations that it violates workers’ rights at the Canton plant.

At a time when the U.A.W. has fewer than 1/3 of the 1.5 million workers it had in 1979, its organizing push in the South has taken on urgency and is being watched closely by labor leaders across the country. “It’s a life-and-death matter for the U.A.W. to succeed in the South,” says a U. of California prof. “If the U.A.W. fails to win at the foreign companies’ plants in the South,” adds an industry expert, “they will pull down wages at General Motors, Ford and Chrysler.” The union faces rough going in Mississippi, considering the embarrassing loss it suffered in 2001 when workers at Nissan’s plant in Tennessee voted two to one against joining the U.A.W.

“We’re a right-to-work state,” says a Canton businessman. “Back in the Industrial Revolution I could see why unions were needed, but we’re now in 2013, and I don’t see the need.” For Mississippi, landing Nissan was a coup. The 10-year-old auto plant was the state’s first, and its work force has climbed to 5,200, making Nissan the state’s second-largest private employer. Nissan has invested $2 billion in its state-of-the-art plant, which uses 1,200 robots. The base wage for most of the plant’s workers is $23.22 an hour, making them the envy of many blue-collar workers in Mississippi.

Classroom discussion questions:

1. Justify the positions of the union, of Nissan, and of the state.

2. Why is this a “life or death matter” for the UAW?

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