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Mini-Union Vote at Nissan Tennessee Plant Set

Fewer than 100 employees out of the thousands who work at the plant in Tennessee will have the chance to vote.

Workers at the Nissan plant in Smyrna, Tenn., walk by a Nissan Altima sedan on May 15, 2012.
Workers at the Nissan plant in Smyrna, Tenn., walk by a Nissan Altima sedan on May 15, 2012.
AP Photo/Erik Schelzig, File

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Fewer than 100 employees out of the thousands who work at Nissan's auto assembly plant in Tennessee will have the chance to vote on March 16 on whether to form a small union.

On Tuesday, the National Labor Relations Board set the secret ballot election date for about 86 tool and die technicians at Nissan's Smyrna plant. The vote on whether to be represented by the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers will take place at the Nissan facility, which is about 25 miles (40 kilometers) outside Nashville.

The board ruled earlier this month that the smaller bloc of employees is eligible for union organizing. The decision was made by a board majority picked by President Joe Biden. It overturned a June 2021 ruling by one of the board's regional officials that had long blocked the vote.

The vote offers measured hope for unions in their uphill fight to get a foothold in foreign-owned auto assembly plants in the traditionally anti-union South.

Nissan had contended that the employees are not sufficiently distinct from other plant workers to be eligible for their own small unionized subgroup.

A spokesperson for Nissan, which has about 7,000 employees at the Smyrna facility, said Wednesday that the company believes its workplace is "stronger without the involvement of third-party unions" like the Machinists, while emphasizing that it is the right of employees to decide.

"Our history reflects that Nissan respects the right of employees to determine who should represent their interests in the workplace," Nissan spokesperson Lloryn Love-Carter said in a statement. "However, we believe our workplace is stronger without the involvement of third-party unions, including the IAM, that have not been involved in our history of quality job creation and do not understand the relationship we have with Nissan teammates."

In a statement, the Machinists union commended the group of workers for "standing up to Nissan and demanding a voice in the workplace."

"We hope that over the next month, Nissan North America will respect the rights of their employees and let them make a decision free of intimidation and coercion," Machinists union Southern Territory General Vice President Rickey Wallace said in a news release.

Nissan does work with organized labor in the rest of the world, but votes to unionize broadly at the U.S.' two Nissan plants have not been close. Workers in Smyrna rejected a plantwide union under the United Auto Workers in 2001 and 1989. The Japan-based automaker's other U.S. assembly plant in Canton, Mississippi, rejected facility-wide representation by the UAW during a 2017 vote.

The margin was much closer in 2014 and 2019 votes at the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee, where workers twice rejected a factory-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 the bargaining unit also needed to include production workers. As a result, the 2019 factory-wide vote followed.

Unions also have run into opposition from Republican politicians when they attempt to organize at foreign automakers in the South, including in Tennessee.

Tennessee already has a big union presence at an American automaker: the General Motors plant in Spring Hill has thousands of production and skilled trades workers represented by UAW.

There is also an open question about whether workers will unionize at four sprawling new factories planned by Ford in Kentucky and Tennessee by 2025, with an aim of hiring 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 make electric F-Series pickup trucks.

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