CANTON, Miss. — The United Auto Workers — desperate to make inroads in the anti-union South where Toyota, Volkswagen, and other foreign automakers have assembly plants — has never tried a unionization drive quite like the one at the Nissan plant in Canton, Miss.
It has enlisted thousands of union members in Brazil to picket Nissan dealerships as the company prepares to co-sponsor the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. The union has a team of Mississippi ministers and workers in South Africa, where Nissan has an assembly plant, to try to embarrass the firm with accusations that it violates workers’ rights at the Canton plant.
During the next few weeks, a delegation of UAW leaders and supporters will go to Tokyo and Paris, the headquarters of Renault, Nissan’s partner, to publicize a report by a Cornell University professor that asserts that Nissan’s managers have illegally threatened to close the Mississippi plant if workers vote to unionize.
These efforts are largely directed at Nissan’s part-Brazilian, part-French chief executive, Carlos Ghosn, a noted cost cutter who said the company prefers communicating with its Mississippi workers without a union.
Closer to home, actor Danny Glover speaks at colleges across the South to recruit students to distribute union flyers at Nissan dealerships. The union also has helped create a group of students and community and religious leaders, the Mississippi Alliance for Fairness at Nissan, which includes the NAACP.
At a time when the UAW has fewer than one-third of the 1.5 million workers it had in 1979, its organizing push in the South has taken on urgency and is being watched closely by labor leaders nationwide.
“It’s a life-and-death matter for the UAW to succeed in the South,” said Nelson Lichtenstein, a professor and labor historian at the University of California, Santa Barbara. “That’s why they’ve put their best organizers into this campaign.”
The battle has divided workers at the Nissan plant here, which stretches four-fifths of a mile along I-55 and produces 450,000 Altimas, Sentras, and other vehicles a year. Pro-union forces say many workers are backing the UAW, while anti-union workers insist the union has little chance of gaining majority backing.
Some anti-union workers wear T-shirts saying, “If you want a union, move to Detroit.”
Stephanie Sutton, a paint technician, says that many workers are speaking out for a union to pressure Nissan to give larger raises, but they will not vote for the UAW.
“You have a lot of people who talk the talk, but I don’t know if they’re going to stand up when it counts,” she said.
Bob King, the UAW’s president, has undertaken its most ambitious campaign in the region. In addition to Canton, the UAW is pushing to organize Volkswagen’s plant in Chattanooga, Tenn., and the Mercedes-Benz plant in Vance, Ala.
“Bob King has basically staked his legacy on organizing these international assembly plants,” said Kristin Dziczek, director of the labor and industry group at the Center for Automotive Research. “Unless they unionize more of the automotive work force in the country, they will become wage takers, not wage setters.”
If the UAW fails to win at the foreign companies’ plants in the South, Ms. Dziczek said, they would pull down wages at General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler.
The union faces rough going in Mississippi, she said, considering the loss it suffered in 2001 when workers at Nissan’s plant in Smyrna, Tenn., voted 2 to 1 against joining the UAW.
Mr. King vows better results. “What’s different this time is there is really strong and active community support.”
Noting that unions in Japan, Germany, Australia, and Britain are backing the Mississippi fight, he added: “That kind of global pressure on them, as a labor-rights violator, will make a big difference. There are outrageous violations of the workers’ right to organize.”
Nissan’s auto plant was Mississippi’s first, and its work force has climbed to 5,200, making Nissan the state’s second-largest private employer. Blake Wilson, president of the Mississippi Economic Council, the state’s chamber of commerce, praises Nissan for bringing thousands of jobs and donating millions to charities and the Canton school system.
“Across the South, the spirit of a nonunion environment has been a positive in the growth of all kinds of manufacturing,” Mr. Wilson said. “The nonunion environment has been a market edge in Southern states. But if you start seeing that change, it will certainly be a loss for the region.”
Nissan has invested $2 billion in its plant, which uses 1,200 robots. The base wage for most of the plant’s workers is $23.22 an hour, making them the envy of many blue-collar workers in Mississippi.
Many pro-union workers complain that the company does not listen to workers as much as they would like and puts injured workers back on the line too soon.
Many are upset that their wages were frozen for five years and that the plant has hired hundreds of temporary workers, many of them starting about $12 an hour. Experienced workers complain that they are relegated to night shifts because the temporary workers often get the coveted day shifts.
“They give them the easier jobs so they won’t leave,” said Chip Wells, also a paint technician. “They’re standing next to us doing the same job, receiving less benefits and less pay. That’s not fair.”
Union officials estimate that 40 percent of the plant’s production workers are temporary and would be ineligible to participate in the UAW unionization vote. Company officials declined to disclose the number.
Camille Young, Nissan’s community relations manager in Canton, noted that most of the plant’s workers were to receive a raise of 55 cents an hour this month.
Nissan officials pointed out that Detroit’s automakers also had an extended pay freeze, adding that the Canton plant did not lay anyone off in the recession.