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UAW’s play for Nissan workers in the South understandable, but not guaranteed

Jul 22, 2017

These are tricky times for the United Auto Workers.

The guy in the White House says he wants what they want: more manufacturing jobs in the United States. But he’s actually not in charge of making that happen. Instead, the opposite is unspooling – from Harley Davidson cutting production to Detroit automakers shipping assembly of once-revered nameplates overseas.          

Cars sales are tanking, prompting the union that is synonymous with Detroit to start fretting in the halls of its hometown automakers.

Credit Daniel Howes / Detroit News

It’s not easy selling layoffs to workers when the companies are raking in billions on pickups and SUVs. But sales of traditional cars are evaporating.

Likely to change? Probably not anytime soon, if current trends and current gas prices hold reasonably true.

So what’s the UAW to do? Push another organizing vote at Nissan Motor plants in the South, especially in Mississippi, that’s what.

The South is fraught territory for the union. Folks down there generally are suspicious of northern industrial unions. They remember that it was union-represented automakers whose leaders went to Congress, collective hats in hand, to ask for bailouts. It was two union-represented companies, General Motors and Chrysler, that went bankrupt under the weight of debt, evaporating revenue and obligations to labor.

Nissan? No. Honda? No. Toyota? No. In the dark days of 2009, it was Honda and Toyota who quietly strategized with Ford for ways to prop up North American suppliers should GM and Chrysler collapse uncontrollably. That’s a fearsome memory that can’t be wished away by union organizers promising better days under the UAW flag.

Now, it’s no guarantee that the UAW drive down south will fail next month. These are different times. Companies are more loyal to the bottom line than the assembly line, mostly because investors’ high expectations amid low profit margins give them little choice. And average folks sensing fewer options are more willing to push back.

UAW President Dennis Williams says the toughest thing to overcome in a big organizing drive is “fear” – fear of how the company might retaliate if the vote doesn’t go their way. Fear that going union will create the same kind of problems that have bedeviled the UAW, GM, Ford and Chrysler for too many years – but not their foreign rivals. Fear of the unknown.

That fear may be justified. In the real world of business, there are a lot of bad bosses who don’t possess the character to tell the truth, and don’t treat employees with the kind of dignity they’d offer the guy across the street.

And in the real world of labor-management relations, there are a lot of union promises that never materialize. Or, worse, they end up in ugly confrontations that benefit almost no one, starting with the folks who backed the union.

Picking the winner isn’t easy. And it’s getting harder every year.

Daniel Howes is a columnist with The Detroit News. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.