The UAW should learn from its latest failed effort to organize workers
© Getty Images

The United Auto Workers lost big time in its quest to unionize Nissan employees at a plant in Canton, Mississippi last week. Workers voted nearly 2 to 1 to reject representation. It was a major setback for a union which has found organizing an entire southern auto plant impossible. But winning was likely never the union’s strategy anyway, at least in the short term.

The main goal of the union may have been to get personal contact information for all the employees at the plant.

It only takes 30 percent of employees at any given workplace signing petitions for the union to hold a plant-wide vote under current labor law. However, successful unionization campaigns usually take place only after more than the needed 50 percent of workers have asked for that election.

ADVERTISEMENT

In this case, the union was noncommittal in its estimates of the number of people who asked for the vote, and the National Labor Relations Board couldn't say with certainty either. It may have been far too low to unionize. So, you are probably wondering, why in the world did union organizers rush the election?

 

Unlike in other states, in Mississippi it is illegal for a union to brow beat an employer into handing over the list of employees or to ditch the private ballot in favor of “card check,” a public petition process that doesn't even resemble an election. Thus, UAW strategists went down the route of filing for a long shot election.

By holding the vote, the union forced Nissan to give it contact info for all of the workers at the site. Tipping its hand, the UAW complained to the federal agency in charge of the election that the list Nissan gave it was faulty.

Without card check, at least those workers who felt pressured into signing onto calls for a unionization election can vote their consciences in private. Take that privacy away and you’re just inviting union coercion on a large scale. Still, now the UAW can target Nissan workers strategically and surgically for future unionization elections. Get a few more each time and pretty soon you’ve got a unionized workplace – at least in theory.

The union’s typical playbook to go after employers is something called a “corporate campaign” which is forbidden by Mississippi law. In corporate campaigns, a union tries to harm a company’s reputation with a strategic purpose in mind. A prime example is democratic socialist Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersFranken targets senators from both parties in new comedy tour Pelosi says House members would not vote on spending bill top line higher than Senate's Groups push lawmakers to use defense bill to end support for Saudis in Yemen civil war MORE (I-Vt.) calling Nissan a “greedy corporation” that is “threaten[ing] the local community” and making “obscene profits.”

And make no mistake, the UAW is engaging in an ongoing corporate campaign against foreign auto makers who build cars in Southern states, where the vast majority of workers are not organized. The outright rejection of the union showed that many workers aren't buying what the UAW is selling.

The union’s strategy may be fatally flawed in Mississippi but the national and global smear campaign may be used to pressure Nissan in areas where corporate campaigns are legal. And don’t forget, the UAW can still bring its coercive tactics to Canton workers because now they have the list. 

The car manufacturer was right to insist on the private ballot for its workers. It didn’t hurt that it was backed by the full force of Mississippi law. The union’s usual actions following a losing election, on the other hand, will be much harder to justify.

Despite the lopsided defeat, the UAW may not take “no” for an answer. They could still follow through with their protests on the election and possibly bring other challenges through the NLRB. The union should instead listen to the overwhelming majority of Nissan workers who have clearly said they do not want UAW representation.

F. Vincent Vernuccio is an attorney and was a special assistant at the Department of Labor under President George W. Bush. He advises non-profits, businesses, public relation firms and elected officials on a multitude of labor issues, including the UAW's organization of Nissan.


The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.