Nissan workers in Tennessee to decide whether to form small union

FILE PHOTO: The front entrance to the Nissan Motor Co's automobile manufacturing plant in Smyrna Tennessee

By Daniel Wiessner

(Reuters) – Technicians at Nissan Motor Co’s Smyrna plant in Tennessee will vote on Thursday whether to join a union, potentially providing a path to unionize thousands more production workers at the facility.

The 86 tool and die workers would be the first group to unionize at Nissan’s largest assembly plant in North America if they vote to join the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers union, known as IAM.

Last month, the Democrat-controlled U.S. National Labor Relations Board rejected Nissan’s claim that any election should also involve thousands of production-line workers because they share working conditions with the technicians. The Smyrna plant has more than 7,000 employees.

Nissan spokesperson Lloryn Love-Carter said the company believed its workplace was stronger without the presence of unions “that have not been involved in our history of quality job creation and do not understand the relationship we have with Nissan teammates.”

IAM did not respond to requests for comment.

Unions have struggled for decades to unionize the Japanese automaker’s Smyrna factory, which opened in 1983, and other auto plants in the U.S. South. In 1989 and 2001, workers in Smyrna voted overwhelmingly against joining the United Auto Workers (UAW) union.

The union strategy of targeting smaller groups of supportive workers as a way to gain a foothold in a workplace is not new, but business groups have been more critical of the tactic over the last decade. They say that smaller bargaining units, which are derisively called “micro unions,” fracture workplaces and complicate collective bargaining.

In 2015, UAW won an election to represent 160 skilled trades workers at Volkswagen AG’s Chattanooga plant in Tennessee, a year after losing a bid to unionize the entire facility.

Volkswagen challenged the results in court, but the case was sent back to the National Labor Relations Board after board members appointed by former Republican President Donald Trump issued a ruling in a separate case that made it more difficult to form smaller bargaining units. The UAW then withdrew its petition to pave the way for a factory-wide election, which the union narrowly lost in 2019.

The labor board’s current Democratic majority reversed the Trump-era precedent in December, restoring a test adopted in 2011 that is seen as favoring unions.

The new test was adopted after IAM filed a petition to represent the Nissan technicians, so it does not apply to the case. But the board last month said that under an older standard the unit was valid because tool and die workers perform a distinct trade from production employees.

If the union wins Thursday’s election, Nissan could challenge the results before the labor board and then a federal appeals court, potentially delaying contract talks for years.

(Reporting by Daniel Wiessner in Albany, New York; Editing by Alexia Garamfalvi and Mark Potter)