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VOL. 39 | NO. 3 | Friday, January 16, 2015

UAW ‘considers itself a partner’ with GM

By Sam Stockard

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General Motors’ Spring Hill plant is firmly entrenched with the United Auto Workers.

In fact, it might not have retooled and started assembling vehicles again without the union’s efforts.

But Tennessee’s two other major carmakers are still playing cat-and-mouse with unionized labor. Volkswagen could be on the verge of recognizing the UAW as union leaders and company officials enter talks, while Nissan is trying to stave off a third union vote inside the plant.

UAW Local 1853 went to the collective bargaining table in 2011 with the goal of reviving Spring Hill after GM stopped assembling the Saturn there and shuttered the plant.

Those talks led GM to start production of the Chevy Equinox there.

“We wouldn’t be functioning there today if it hadn’t been for the collective bargaining of the UAW. That’s a fact,” says Mike Herron, bargaining agent for the Spring Hill local.


Herron contends that UAW still firmly believes in giving workers a voice but not at the expense of the company. Quite simply, it has changed its philosophy significantly, putting more emphasis on job training and workplace safety.

“Now, UAW considers itself a partner with the company,” Herron says. “It’s not them and us, it’s we. We want all the employers we’re involved with to be strong.”

Consequently, GM is moving its Cadillac model and a small engine assembly to Spring Hill, along with another model, still unannounced, and adding some 1,800 jobs.

“We’re under preparation right now for making those announcements reality in this plant,” Herron explains.

Up the road in Smyrna, Nissan can’t seem to move vehicles off the line fast enough. It produced 600,000 vehicles in the past year.


But even though it’s the biggest automobile producer in the nation, state Rep. Mike Sparks, a former Nissan employee, is lukewarm on the manufacturer, especially when it comes contract labor.

“Tennessee is poised to be No. 1 in the nation when it comes to automotive manufacturing,” says Sparks, a Smyrna Republican, noting Nissan does “build a great product.”

At the same time, Sparks has for years raised questions about Nissan’s employment policies, including hiring contract or temporary workers who don’t receive the same benefits as Nissan employees.

“I just feel we’re getting a little bit of an imbalance” in the Nissan workforce, Sparks says.

He believes that is reflected in growing numbers of local children on the rolls of subsidized school meal programs and the number of apartment complexes going up, compared to single-family homes.

Sparks argues that it’s difficult for a person to obtain a home mortgage without a full-time job.

He also contends Nissan should improve benefits for its contract and temporary workers, including offering them the leased-vehicle program employees have.

Yet, he is fully in the company’s corner because of what it means to Rutherford County and the Middle Tennessee economy. And without equitable pay and benefits at Nissan, he believes the UAW could make inroads there after being turned back on two union votes since 1987.

UAW maintains an office next to Gold’s Gym off Lowry Street, not far from the plant. A T-shirt hanging in the window calls for equal pay and benefits for employees of Yates Services [a hiring service], one of Nissan’s contractors.

Union officials say they have a serious concern about Nissan’s reliance on “perma-temp” workers as a way to keep wages low and offer fewer benefits.

Nissan is considered one of the worst offenders in the industry for that practice, and the UAW is preparing to ramp up visibility in late January as the issue draws international attention, though there is no earnest effort to organize a vote yet, UAW officials say.

Such a move concerns Sparks.

“My biggest fear is if that union got in there and that plant leaves our community, this community will be a mess,” Sparks says. “That sounds pretty fictitious, but there’s some pretty credible people telling me that.”

Nissan has more than 8,000 people working in its Smyrna plants, adding 4,000 jobs there since mid-2011, according to company spokesman Justin Saia.

The Smyrna plant has added second and third shifts to support the growth and demand for its products, launched one of the largest lithium-ion battery plants in the country for production of the electric zero-emission LEAF in 2013, and opened an advanced paint factory. In addition, all Nissan LEAF and Rogue assembly was moved to Smyrna from overseas.

The company doesn’t detail the number of contract jobs in its plant, for proprietary reasons, according to Saia, but he says those positions are designed to be “long-term, stable jobs with competitive pay and benefits.”

Use of contract workers is common in the industry, Saia adds, and after the recession ended, Nissan needed to increase capacity faster than it ever had.

“The decision was made to partner with contract staffing agencies to help identify, recruit and onboard additional workforce to meet those demands quickly,” he says. With business more stable, the company is offering eligible contract workers the chance to become Nissan technicians through its Pathway career advancement program.

Saia says there is no truth in a report that Nissan is stopping production in Smyrna of the lithium ion battery used in its all-electric Leaf.

“The Renault-Nissan Alliance remains 100 percent committed to its industry-leading EV program. This global commitment continues for the foreseeable future, and we have not taken any decision whatsoever to modify battery sourcing allocation. Nissan has no plans to impair its battery investments,” Saia adds.

In Chattanooga, meanwhile, the UAW says a new Volkswagen policy could enable it to start representing workers at the 2-year-old plant, according to an Associated Press report.

In December, VW acknowledged that more than 45 percent of the plant’s blue-collar workers were UAW members, and it informally recognized the union as an employee representative.

VW officials began meeting with UAW management this week, and UAW Local 42 is evolving toward plant unionization, UAW officials say.

Last February, Volkswagen plant workers voted 712-626 not to unionize. The vote came as Gov. Bill Haslam and U.S. Sen. Bob Corker warned that $300 million worth of incentives for a plant expansion might disappear if workers decided to unionize.

In November, however, UAW wrote in a letter to members of Local 42 that Volkswagen would allow it to bargain for union and non-union workers in return for dropping a federal challenge of the February vote and cooperating with the plant’s effort to start assembling a new SUV there, according to the AP report.

An independent worker group, the American Council of Employees, says more plant workers are choosing it over the UAW and that it will let them “dictate their own path,” without interference from Detroit or Washington, AP reported.

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