Andrew C. McKevitt: UAW’s Defeat at Nissan and the Path Forward

Andrew C. McKevitt: Consuming JapanToday we welcome a guest blog post from Andrew C. McKevitt, author of Consuming Japan: Popular Culture and the Globalizing of 1980s, on the recent decision by Nissan workers in Canton, Mississippi, to reject the United Author Workers’ representation.

Consuming Japan explores the intense and ultimately fleeting moment in 1980s America when the future looked Japanese. Would Japan’s remarkable post–World War II economic success enable the East Asian nation to overtake the United States? Or could Japan’s globe-trotting corporations serve as a model for battered U.S. industries, pointing the way to a future of globalized commerce and culture? From autoworkers to anime fans, this insightful book introduces new unorthodox actors into foreign-relations history, demonstrating how the flow of all things Japanese contributed to the globalizing of America in the late twentieth century.

Consuming Japan will be out in October 2017 and is available for pre-order now.


The UAW’s Defeat at Nissan and the Path Forward

On August 4, 2017, workers at Nissan’s assembly plant in Canton, Mississippi, voted to reject representation by the United Auto Workers union. The loss stung, to be sure, but the once-powerful UAW has become accustomed to failure in its efforts to organize auto production facilities operated by foreign companies. Twice previously, in 1989 and 2001, workers rejected the union at Nissan’s plant in Smyrna, Tennessee,—the company’s first North American plant, and only the second Japanese-owned plant in the United States. The UAW later lost another hard-fought battle at a Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga in 2014, after high-profile anti-union interventions by Tennessee’s top Republican politicians. In Canton, pro-union workers were optimistic after more than a decade of organizing that included making alliances with local civil rights and religious organizations. They had scored some major national press attention recently when former presidential candidate Bernie Sanders joined the March on Mississippi, a workers’ march through Canton that recalled the civil rights history of the greater Jackson area; 80 percent of the workforce at Canton is black, and the “racially charged” election bespoke conflicts in the plant between labor and management. But ultimately, 62 percent of plant employees voted against the UAW, and now the union must once again figure out a path forward.

Since the 1980s, the UAW has struggled to attract workers in U.S. plants operated by Japan’s automakers. The union’s first experience in this regard, as I explore in detail in my book, Consuming Japan: Popular Culture and the Globalizing of 1980s America, came in the early 1980s in Marysville, Ohio, a small town 30 miles northwest of Columbus. After opening a motorcycle-assembly plant in 1979, in November 1982 Honda inaugurated a gleaming new auto-assembly facility, where it would produce the Accord, the United States’ bestselling car by the end of the decade. Contrary to the deservedly anti-union reputation Nissan would earn in the coming years in Smyrna and, later, Canton, Honda executives did not arrive from Japan fiercely committed to keeping the plant union-free. After all, UAW leaders traveled annually to Japan in the late 1970s with the goal of coaxing Japanese companies to build their increasingly popular cars in the United States and create new union jobs in the process. Union management celebrated the announcement of Honda’s plans to build the first auto “transplant” facility, assuming it and others to follow would eventually operate under a union contract; company management even made that assumption, as every auto worker in the United States worked under a UAW contract. In fact, in early 1982 Honda executives even went so far as to sign an agreement with UAW officials stipulating that the company would encourage its workforce to join the union. (I stumbled on this remarkable, seemingly forgotten document, in the UAW records at the Walter P. Reuther Library at Wayne State University.) Despite that shared commitment on the part of both the company and the union, by the end of 1985 the UAW would retreat from Marysville on the eve of a unionization vote, suffering the first defeat of many to come in foreign-owned plants. Despite public pronouncements to the contrary, union leadership acknowledged internally that they did not have support among Honda’s workers, despite early confidence that workers would choose the UAW.

In short, the UAW must come to see workers in these unique local communities as they see themselves, not as photocopies of workers the union organized decades ago.

The reasons for the UAW’s failure in Marysville resonate in Canton. What can the twenty-first-century union learn from the experience at Honda in the 1980s? In both Marysville and Canton, local context mattered. The UAW was historically effective at framing the national struggle between labor and capital, and its experience it that regard was shaped by the local context of the midcentury auto industry of greater Detroit, where unskilled workers in Big Three plants labored under similar conditions. But in the last several decades it has struggled to understand workers in very different local contexts, many of them impoverished and rural locations in the Deep South, places where employment opportunities rarely extend beyond low-paying service-industry jobs. In these contexts, a position at a plant like Nissan’s, where workers are called “technicians” and operate high-tech equipment in a clean and modern environment, is not seen as a dead-end working-class job but a step toward middle-class respectability. Many Nissan Canton workers, like workers in Smyrna three decades ago and Honda’s in Marysville before that, don’t see themselves as a kind of blue-collar proletariat, as workers in Big Three plants did decades earlier. Indeed, the catch-all of “Detroit” is wielded as a bogeyman in these labor battles, as when, on the eve of the election, Mississippi governor Phil Bryant posted to Facebook a photo of a crumbling factory alongside the message, “I hope the employees at Nissan Canton understand what the UAW will do to your factory and town. Just ask Detroit.” Many employees have accepted threats that a union would send the company packing, taking with it good middle-class jobs and forcing workers back to Walmart or other low-paying precarious employment.

In short, the UAW must come to see workers in these unique local communities as they see themselves, not as photocopies of workers the union organized decades ago. In Marysville, Smyrna, Canton, and elsewhere, notions of working-class solidarity have been replaced, as David M. Anderson and I argue in a forthcoming book chapter, by the vision of a job at Honda or Nissan elevating a worker to the status of “the Chosen,” a member of a select cohort given access to the benefits the global economy can provide, while it denies those benefits to others, especially the “temp” workers increasingly filling long-term roles in these plants. Once a cohort of workers begins making, in Canton’s case, wages equivalent to $50,000 a year or more, they’ve been vaulted into the middle class, and appeals to working-class solidarity violate new notions of independence, professional identity, and even good fortune. The union’s promise in elections like the one in August lies not in better treatment or terms from the company today but instead in a kind of investment for a future crisis or industry downturn. Reflecting on the last 35 years, then, the UAW might rethink its approach to a workforce with a developing middle-class identity.

* Many thanks to my Louisiana Tech colleague David M. Anderson for comments on this piece.


Andrew C. McKevitt is assistant professor of history at Louisiana Tech University and author of the forthcoming Consuming Japan: Popular Culture and the Globalizing of 1980s America. Follow him on Twitter for further updates.