Late Friday night, the American labor movement was dealt yet another body blow—an increasingly common occurrence in the Trump era—as it became clear that the United Auto Workers had lost its long-shot bid to establish a union at a Nissan manufacturing plant in Canton, Mississippi.
Workers at the factory voted 2,244 to 1,307 against unionization, a devastating landslide defeat for the Detroit-based union and worker activists who had been trying to organize since the plant first opened nearly 15 years ago.
“We’re disappointed but not surprised by the outcome in Canton,” said Gary Casteel, secretary-treasurer of the UAW, in a statement. “Despite claiming for years to be neutral on the question of a union, Nissan waged one of the most illegal and unethical anti-union campaigns that I’ve seen in my lifetime.”
For decades, industrial unions have tried to make headway in the South, where manufacturers both foreign—like Airbus, Mercedes Benz, Toyota, and Volkswagen— and domestic—like Boeing—have set up shop, drawn by the region’s low wages and historic aversion to unions.
Forty of Nissan’s 42 plants around the world are unionized—as are the vast majority of other foreign-owned multinationals’. Corporations that wouldn’t think of going non-union in Europe or Japan become militantly anti-union when they move into the South.
Unions’ efforts at these Southern plants have failed almost every time—most recently in Charleston, South Carolina, where the Machinists union called for an election earlier this year to unionize Boeing’s first Southern factory. Despite a multi-year effort to build up support, more than two-thirds of eligible workers voted to reject a union.
The unsuccessful campaign in Canton epitomizes the immense challenges that weakened unions face as they try to survive, shore up strength, and expand in a globalized economy that is squeezing workers more and more. The continued failures prompt important and ongoing debates about unions’ approaches to organizing strategy—and the degree to which they may be repeating the same mistakes over and over again. But they also bring into stark relief the question of whether labor unions can make any meaningful organizing gains without a complete overhaul of the nation’s labor laws.
The answer, increasingly, appears to be, “no.”
A CENTRAL CHALLENGE IS THAT UNIONS are fighting with one hand tied behind their backs, forced to operate within a woefully antiquated labor law framework while corporations brazenly operate outside that framework with little fear of consequences or retribution. Corporations have mastered the art of union avoidance, spending millions of dollars on sophisticated campaigns to advance anti-union talking points in both the workplace and the community.
The plant employs about 6,500 people, including thousands of temporary workers who are employed through the staffing agency Kelly Services, though they were not eligible to be in the union. UAW officials have criticized the car company for paying “perma-temps” lower wages for doing the same work as Nissan employees.
Nissan’s anti-union campaign was even more aggressive than the typical aggressive employer campaign, says Kate Bronfenbrenner, a senior lecturer and labor-organizing expert at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations, because Nissan sensed that UAW was gaining momentum, having reportedly gotten a majority of workers to sign union cards before the election.
“They had to undo that union majority by using fear and intimidation,” Bronfenbrenner says.
In Canton, Nissan played anti-UAW videos on a continuous loop in the employee break rooms leading up to the election. The company pulled workers into “captive audience” roundtable discussions, where managers warned that a union would create rigidity and would wreak havoc in the Nissan “family.”
Supervisors wore “Vote No” t-shirts on the floor and pulled workers who had voiced support for the union into one-on-one meetings. As Payday Report’s Mike Elk, who covered the election on the ground, reported, management allegedly dealt out long-promised raises and lucrative rates for car purchases, while threatening to take away special lease rates on new cars for employees if they voted to unionize.
“When Nissan said, ‘We are going take away your leased vehicle,’ everything changed,” Nissan worker Betty Jones told Elk. “And the more they were saying that, the more people were wearing their [anti-union] shirts.”
The Japanese automaker also ran TV ads in the Canton media market, while nearly every business in the area had anti-union signs outside their stores. For his part, Mississippi’s Republican Governor Phil Bryant posted an unsubtle message on Facebook.
Veiled threats that the plant might shut down if workers unionized are common in union campaigns, but particularly effective when used by multinationals whose threat may not sound empty. “Multinationals are harder to organize under because the threat of capital mobility is very real and they use the threat that they will move,” Bronfenbrenner says. “This is not a Southern phenomenon. This is problem in organizing multinational firms, period.”
Confronted by Nissan’s anti-union onslaught, the UAW and its allies mounted a counter-campaign that tried to build community support and tie the organizing drive at the plant—where the majority of workers are black—to the civil rights movement. Back in March, the UAW held a march in Canton where some 5,000 activists, including Senator Bernie Sanders, actor Danny Glover, and former NAACP President Cornell Brooks, gathered to rally support in the lead up to UAW filing for an election. And in the days before the election, both Sanders and Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez voiced support for a Nissan union.
The racial factors at play in Mississippi as the union campaign heated up were hard to miss, too. A man on one radio station in the area said, “You Nissan people better listen,” warning that workers would go back to “picking cotton, plowing fields, or digging ditches” if they voted to unionize.
The UAW has filed several Unfair Labor Practice complaints with the National Labor Relations Board, including seven on Friday evening alleging that Nissan violated federal labor law. In July, the NLRB charged Nissan with illegally bribing and intimidating workers, which the company denies and has promised to appeal. If the labor board finds that the company illegally swayed the election outcome, it could void the results and order a new election within six months. However, the odds of success for unions are often even lower in re-elections as companies will often double down on intimidation tactics.
In Donald Trump’s Washington, meanwhile, the White House and the Republican-controlled Congress work in concert to roll back union-friendly regulations. The prospects of federal labor law reform that could create a level playing field for workers trying to unionize are currently nonexistent while the threat of a complete dismantling of existing protections is exceedingly possible. Trump is on the verge of getting his NLRB appointees through the Senate, which will create an anti-union majority on the board and add one additional obstacle to union organizing.
The Nissan loss is a devastating one for unions and workers alike—but unless the labor landscape changes in a dramatic way, those types of losses will only continue.