Can UAW election in Canton bode well either way?
Today’s balloting at Canton’s Nissan plant should resolve whether the United Auto Workers (UAW) will be allowed to represent and collectively bargain for workers there. I can see disadvantages for either outcome — workers’ approval of UAW representation or their disapproval.
In the first place, always missing from any discussion I have seen is acknowledgement that even without the UAW, the union’s influence has benefited Canton auto workers. No one seems to realize that the wages and benefits presently offered to Nissan workers are higher and more generous because of the union’s threat to organize there.
If we don’t understand that all along Nissan’s game plan has been to set pay and benefits high enough to make UAW membership unattractive, we are not being realistic. So the UAW has already brought advantages to workers at the Canton auto plant.
The question is, do Nissan factory workers need the UAW as badly as the UAW needs them? Membership in the UAW has declined steadily since the 1960s for multiple reasons, some of them their own fault. At its peak of membership and power, the union became increasingly greedy in its demands of U.S. auto manufacturers, contributing to their decline. With power and greed came corruption. Finally lawmakers began to push back and pass laws that made it easier to operate a factory without them. Hence the “right-to-work” laws that first swept the south and are now creeping into states that were formerly union strongholds.
The dilemma is that UAW needs the membership of Canton workers to make a statement that it is still viable, yet if the workers there vote to be represented by UAW, there may be unintended consequences. If UAW finds traction in Canton and makes demands that Nissan considers unreasonable, what then? A strike?
What Nissan workers need is not necessarily union representation but the threat of it, but if UAW loses there, the threat becomes less viable.
And suppose workers there vote to allow UAW and the unions starts making demands that Nissan considers harmful to production? UAW alleges that Nissan management has told workers that it can close the plant and move, a threat that UAW has protested as illegal under the terms governing union elections. Yet, as huge as is the Nissan investment in its Mississippi production facilities, the threat may not be hollow. Of course, Nissan is not going to close its plant overnight and open up somewhere else, but it might gradually shift certain production to other facilities where costs are lower until finally the giant building along I-55 has become primarily a warehouse.
That’s not easy, but today’s transportation and communication infrastructure make production relocation more feasible than in the mid-20th Century when unions were at their maximum strength. Then there is the competitive bidding among cities, counties, states and countries to provide costly incentives that lure industry into relocation decisions.
Those are the outcomes I see. If UAW loses at Canton, then Nissan and others who are watching can relax in its pay and benefits incentives. If UAW wins, Nissan workers may see short term gains but long term loss.