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Mississippi eyes upcoming union vote at Nissan’s Smyrna plant

While workers at Nissan’s assembly plant in Smyrna, Tenn. are readying for a union vote, the business community in Mississippi is taking note.

On Aug. 14, a delegation of Nissan workers petitioned the National Labor Relations Board for an NLRB-supervised union election at the Smyrna plant. The vote will take place sometime this fall.

The petition marks the fourth attempt in a dozen years to unionize Nissan employees at the Smyrna plant, which opened in 1983.

“We need a voice in the plant but we also want a good working relationship with Nissan,” said Randy Gentry of Fayetteville, Tenn., a 16-year production technician at the Smyrna plant and a member of the Nissan Volunteer Organizing Committee (VOC).

“Money’s not the issue,” he said. “We make over $20 an hour. Injuries, long-term job security and other issues are among our concerns.”

In 1989, Nissan employees rejected the union in an approximately 70% to 30% election, said Tom Groom, director of human resources for Nissan North America.

“In 1997 and 2000, the UAW walked away from active campaigns,” he said.

Gentry said, “We’re gaining support and I feel good about it. Even if we don’t win, a union election in a plant sends a message that the company has an unhappy work force.”

Groom said it is unclear whether the petition filed last month includes all eligible Nissan employees.

“Nissan will cooperate fully with the NLRB to assure that all eligible employees are given their right to vote in a secret ballot election,” he said. “Nissan is confident that a great majority of employees will again reject the union by voting no.”

Gentry, who recently had elbow surgery for a work-related repetitive injury, and is currently on medical leave, said there are many work-related injuries at the plant because “overloaded jobs are at too fast a pace.”

“We don’t have a voice in how the jobs need to be set up,” he said. “Nissan sets them up and we’re going to run them and that’s it. Then, when people are hurt and are out on medical leave, the company may say they don’t have a job available when they go back.”

Gentry said three employees in his area were on medical leave for work-related injuries, but he didn’t know the total number of employees that have had work-related injuries.

Because of the pending union vote, Nissan declined to disclose that information, adding that the company “will not participate in media interviews until this active campaign is concluded.”

Retirement benefits are an issue, Gentry said. “When you retire from Nissan, you have to find a job somewhere else because the draw isn’t enough,” he said. “They try to sell it as the best retirement program in the auto industry and it’s pathetic. Part of the problem is that it depends on several things like 401(k) contributions and interest on that and you can’t get information on it. It’s very confusing. We’ve tried to get someone to sit down and explain our benefits and we can’t do it.”

Gentry said company policies are “very inconsistent.”

“We live out of a handbook and what applies to one area may not apply to another,” he said.

Gentry, who has been involved from the beginning with union organization efforts, said, “Nissan isn’t very fond of anyone who stands up and takes a different view.”

Robert Shaffer, president of the Mississippi AFL-CIO, said the upcoming union vote proves that Nissan didn’t learn anything from its previous elections.

“The employees are saying they’re unhappy and Nissan’s not listening, so I would expect the same in Jackson,” Shaffer said. “Same company, same trend and they’ll do whatever to make the bottom line look good. Employees are the only ones they can put it off on and they certainly aren’t going to hurt their corporate wages.”

Gentry said, “The problems we have could be your problems too. I don’t know why they would treat employees in Mississippi any different from us.”

The UAW, which has four local chapters in Mississippi, including one in metro Jackson, falls under the umbrella of the AFL-CIO.

Robert Ingram, executive director of the Center for Community and Economic Development at the University of Southern Mississippi, said, “The repercussion is that if the union vote passes in Tennessee, it makes it much more likely to pass in Mississippi, even though they are not connected labor markets. Once the union breaks into one facility in the South, it would make it so much easier for the second one to be unionized. That issue, and the turnout, will have a great impact on future automotive locations in the South.”

Ken Barlow, executive director of Mississippi Automotive Manufacturers Association (MAMA), said, “I don’t have any information about the union vote. Therefore, I don’t think it would be appropriate to comment at this time.”

Groom said, “Nissan and its employees are in the midst of a positive period of growth and success. The Smyrna and Decherd (Tenn.) plants are currently hiring new employees, offering jobs to hundreds of people.

The company is also launching its all-new 2002 model Nissan Altima midsize sedan and 2002 models of the Nissan Frontier line of pickup trucks and the Nissan Xterra sport utility vehicle. In Mississippi, construction is in full swing at the Canton plant site, where production will begin in 2003.

“At every plant, employees are surrounded by signs of growth and opportunity. In this positive context, Nissan is confident that the vast majority of employees will reject the UAW’s attempt to establish a union at the company.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne Wilbanks Jeter at lwjeter@yahoo.com or (601) 853-3967.

About Lynne W. Jeter

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