Can the United Auto Workers unionize "Detroit South" – including Mississippi's Nissan and Toyota auto manufacturing plants – as a last ditch effort to salvage the troubled union's long-term financial fortunes? Prior UAW efforts to organize in Mississippi

Can the United Auto Workers unionize “Detroit South” – including Mississippi’s Nissan and Toyota auto manufacturing plants – as a last ditch effort to salvage the troubled union’s long-term financial fortunes?
Prior UAW efforts to organize in Mississippi – a “right-to-work” state – have met with failure. The same has been true in most Southern states. The UAW lost union votes at the Nissan plant in Smyrna, Tenn., by more than two-to-one margins in 1989 and again in 2001.
UAW organization efforts on at least two instances between 2005 and 2010 at the Nissan plant in Canton have lacked sufficient worker interest for the union to even formally seek a vote.
It’s difficult for the union to negate criticism that union contract demands contributed significantly to the near-collapse of all three U.S. automakers. General Motors and Chrysler received massive government bailouts and entered Chapter 11 bankruptcy.
Ford avoided bankruptcy and didn’t take federal bailouts, but did ask for and accept $5.9 billion in U.S. Department of Energy loans in 2009 to help retool its factories to build more fuel-efficient vehicles. Ford also asked the feds for a $9 billion line of credit as a hedge against a worsening economy, but the company never accessed that funding.
As U.S. automakers struggled and nearly failed over the last 30 years, foreign-owned and non-unionized “transplant” automakers from Japan, Korea and Germany established “Detroit South” primarily in “right-to-work” states like Mississippi and achieved success with modern manufacturing equipment and techniques and without the fiscal burdens of union labor contracts. There’s Nissan and Toyota in Mississippi, Mercedes-Benz, Hyundai and Honda in Alabama, Kia in Georgia, BMW in South Carolina, and Nissan and Volkswagen in Tennessee.
The UAW had representation in place at one Southern auto plant. GM workers at the now-shuttered Spring Hill, Tenn., auto plant, formerly the manufacturer of Saturn cars until 2007, were represented by the UAW. GM now says it may reopen that plant in November.
For some, word that U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Bolton, is supporting the right of auto workers in Mississippi to form a union if they choose is problematic. But a glance at Thompson’s career campaign finance records make that support understandable.
Since 1989, the Center for Responsive Politics reports that Thompson has received $1.92 million from organized labor with $86,000 of that total coming from the UAW. Thompson, an unabashed pro-labor Democrat, never denied his support for organized labor in both the public and private sectors.
The real factor behind the decision of the UAW to target the Nissan plant in Canton is the union’s desperate need for more mem bers. Back in 1979, the United Auto Workers was a powerful union of nearly 1.5 million members. Today, the UAW has some 380,719 members.
After steady, plummeting declines in membership over the last 30 years, the UAW saw incremental membership gains in the 1 percent range last year as new workers came on board as the Detroit automakers enjoyed a 10 percent hike in U.S. auto sales. It was the second straight year of incremental membership gains after decades of steady union membership erosion.
The UAW’s strategy of targeting “transplant” foreign-owned auto manufacturers is one that exposes Southern auto plants to the same market influences that helped turn much of old Detroit into a rusting ghost of America’s past industrial might. For in a complex global economy, unionized companies simply can’t react to market influences as nimbly as their non-union competitors.
Sid Salter is a syndicated columnist. Contact him at (601) 507-8004 or sidsalter@sidsalter.com.