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This Day in Labor History: July 27, 1989

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On July 27, 1989, workers at the Nissan plant in Smyrna, Tennessee, rejected United Auto Workers representation by a 2-1 margin. This overwhelming lost was one of the first of many defeats the UAW has suffered in the last three decades, losses that have left the once powerful union reeling, which say much about the state of labor today, and which represent the difficulty of mass organizing in the South.

Nearly as soon as the CIO organized northern plants in the 1930s and 1940s, they became frightened at what would happen if they did not organize the nation. Companies could simply pick up and move factories to non-union states. In fact, the textile industry had already done this by the time the United Auto Workers came to being. In the aftermath of World War II, the CIO tried to forestall this by organizing the South, but Operation Dixie was largely a failure, as white workers mostly avoided unions because of their reputation as opponents of segregation and because of effective anti-union propaganda that combined racebaiting, anti-communism, anti-Semitism, and an overall attack on outsiders, combined with the CIO’s own attempts to downplay these things and thus not really organize the black workers who would actually join the unions. And in fact, by the 1960s and 1970s, massive layoffs did take place in northern union factories as companies sought to reopen in the South and, increasingly, overseas.

Meanwhile, as Japanese car companies began entering the American market in a major way in the 1970s, they found it politically expedient to open some production facilities in the United States. The Japanese have quite different labor relations than the United States; although not the subject of this piece, it’s worth noting that at least in theory, it’s more collaborative and less antagonistic than in the U.S. But then almost anything would be, as American employers were always bitter about unionization and daily battles took place on factory floors as foremen and upper supervisors constantly engaged in petty contract violations to bust union members’ chops. When Japanese companies came to the U.S., there was the same emphasis on flexibility, but that got combined with the old-school union-busting of American employers. Top executives might not be American, but those running operations day-to-day were. That was true of Nissan’s Smyrna, Tennessee plant, opened in 1983.

The United Auto Workers knew it needed to organize these new Japanese plants, located largely in the South precisely because wages were lower and unions less accepted, if they were to remain a force. So they started working to build organizing capacity in the plants. They were not without success. It’s a hard job and there are lots of repetitive motion industries. Unfortunately, when the ground broke on the plant in 1981, unionized construction workers, knowing it would be a non-union plant, protested with signs reading “Go Home Japs” while hiring an airplane to fly a banner reading “Go home Datsun, Put America Back to Work.” This was not well-received. The UAW was as embarrassed as anyone. Not a great start.

The UAW made solid points to the Nissan workers. They noted that the Ford plant in Nashville paid workers nearly $8,000 more a year and that safety conditions at the Nissan plant were significantly worse than at Ford. They discovered massive workplace health and safety issues, especially around repetitive motion injuries, which were affecting workers still in their 20s. Nissan countered with the usual anti-union barrage, denying the safety charges, talking about outsiders, and, importantly here, discussing how a UAW contract might disrupt the fringe benefits Nissan provided, especially the very inexpensive leasing of new vehicles for workers. This has been a major issue in southern auto organizing repeatedly. In short, if you give a guy a new truck at a very low rate and tell him he will be able to get another new truck in a few years, even if you aren’t paying him much, any threat to that, especially in an American and even more especially in a southern culture that values trucks, you may well have him locked in, even if you pay him at a low rate. And I use this gendered language specifically, for even as there are women on the lines in southern auto plants, this feeds very strongly into a gendered male culture. And it was hard-going otherwise. At the time, Michigan saw over a quarter of its workforce unionized, whereas Tennessee had only a fraction of that. Moreover, Nissan had screened interviewees for anti-union attitudes in the hiring process, eliminating obvious union activists. And even though the wages were low for the auto industry, they were high compared to other local businesses, other jobs that these specific workers could get. Finally, the day of the vote, Nissan made employees listen to a recorded message by CEO Carlos Ghosn, who had a long history of anti-union activity at various companies, talking about how the UAW would make Nissan uncompetitive, etc. etc. In other words, an overwhelming corporate anti-union campaign.

The final vote was 1,622 no to 711 yes. A terrible defeat. It’s worth noting that many of those “no” votes were not committed anti-union people, but rather people who were scared by the threats and intimidation of the employer. Voting for a union is actually a very brave act of courage. UAW president Owen Bieber said in the aftermath, “All this election demonstrates is that when a company is determined to operate without a union and is willing to use threats and misrepresentation to an unlimited extent, the company can delay, if not escape, its day of reckoning.” Certainly true in the statement’s first half, but there is no day of reckoning for Japanese auto and its insistence on non-union workplaces.

The UAW has continued to fail to organize the southern auto plants over and over again, most notoriously in 2014, when workers in the Chattanooga Volkswagen plant voted it down, even though VW leaders actually wanted the union to help settle labor relations in Germany. But the combination of right-wing propaganda, anti-union attacks on the shop floor from foremen and good old-fashioned race-baiting did the campaign in. Again and again in southern auto, like southern organizing generally, we see white workers’ refusal to join unions overwhelm the black workers who vote for unionization at much higher rates. In the end, the South is just incredibly hard to organize. It is different than the rest of the nation. I know a lot of southern organizers resist the idea that the South is really a problem when it comes to American labor. And then there’s the labor left, which wants to blame UAW leadership and bad organizing tactics for these defeats. But both points are ultimately mostly incorrect. The reality is that southern white people won’t join unions because they are largely more committed to white identity than class identity and because other parts of both the southern economy (always poor with few quality jobs) and white southern culture (evangelical, with deference to authority) make unionization very, very, very difficult.

This is the 276th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

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