Several dozen workers among thousands at a Nissan plant in Tennessee will hold a long-delayed vote on whether to unionize Thursday. Those leading the effort are hoping for an elusive victory at a foreign auto assembly plant in the traditionally anti-union South.
After years of legal wrangling that spanned two presidential administrations, organizers successfully argued that the group of 75 tool and die technicians are eligible for independent representation because they have highly specialized skills for a job that others at the facility cannot do. The Japan-based company argued that the workers are not different enough from other factory workers to be eligible for their own union bloc.
Organizers cited several reasons for unionizing at the Nissan plant in Smyrna, about 25 miles (40 kilometers) outside of Nashville. These include retirement, work-life balance and health care issues they want to negotiate.
Nationally, several high-profile union campaigns — at Starbucks, Amazon, Apple and other companies — have renewed the spotlight on organized labor in recent years, even as union membership hit a record low last year. The number of unionized workers actually rose 1.9 percent to 14.3 million, but that failed to keep pace with higher overall employment rates.
A federal decision in 2021 almost killed the trade union movement in Smyrna. After that decision was overturned this year, organizers said the election could now be a close encounter rather than an easy victory, saying the years of waiting have taken a toll on the campaign.
A National Labor Relations Board official sided with Nissan in June 2021, ruling that the smaller group of workers could not vote to unionize without including thousands more workers at the plant. The union did not continue the facility-wide vote.
But once the US Senate completed confirmations of the new Biden administration appointees, control of the board shifted from Republicans to Democrats. The panel overturned an earlier decision last month, giving the union the go-ahead to vote.
Since workers at the plant first reached out to the machinists union in 2020, some advocates have quit, others have retired and some have moved to unionized workplaces elsewhere, said Tim Wright, the grand lodge representative for the southern territory with the International Union of Machinists and Aerospace Workers.
“This two-year process has cooled this campaign to the point where it’s potentially going to be a close election,” Wright said in an interview Tuesday. He said he hopes the campaign can create a “buzz” with other workers as well.
A spokesman for Nissan, which has about 7,000 employees at its Izmir facility, said the company believes its workplace is “stronger without the involvement of third-party unions,” such as the mechanics’ union. But he emphasized that workers have the right to decide whether to join a union — a right enshrined in federal law since the 1930s.
Unions have faced opposition from Republican politicians when trying to organize at foreign auto plants in the South, including Tennessee. However, it doesn’t appear that GOP officials have tried to weigh the campaign heavily on Nissan.
Tennessee already has a large union presence in an American auto industry: The General Motors plant in Spring Hill has thousands of production and skilled trades workers represented by the United Auto Workers union.
In a radio ad for the campaign — which featured former University of Tennessee and Pittsburgh Steelers football player Ramon Foster — the machinists union highlighted representation of some workers at the Trane Company, Tennessee Valley Authority, Arnold Air Force Base, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, NWI Aero and in the rail industry.
Nissan does work with organized labor around the world, but votes for broad unionization at Nissan’s two U.S. plants were not close. Smyrna workers rejected a plant-wide union under the UAW in 2001 and 1989.
The automaker’s other U.S. assembly plant in Canton, Mississippi, rejected plant-wide representation from the UAW during a 2017 vote.
The margin was much closer in the 2014 and 2019 votes at the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee, where workers twice rejected a plant-wide union under the UAW.
The year after the 2014 vote failed, 160 Chattanooga maintenance workers won a vote to form a smaller union, but Volkswagen refused to bargain. The German automaker had argued that the bargaining unit should also include production workers. As a result, the 2019 factory-wide vote followed.
There’s also an open question about whether workers will unionize at four major new plants that Ford plans in Kentucky and Tennessee by 2025, aiming to hire nearly 11,000 workers. Three of the plants — two in Kentucky, one in Tennessee — will be built with Ford’s South Korean corporate partner, SK Innovation, to produce electric vehicle batteries. A fourth, in Tennessee, will build F-Series electric trucks.