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UAW sets its sights on unionizing foreign auto plants in the South

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

You would think that after negotiating a big win for its members, the United Auto Workers union would take a break. Instead, the UAW is already picking an even tougher fight - this time, in the South. Stephan Bisaha of the Gulf States Newsroom reports the UAW is working hard to recruit more Southern autoworkers into the union.

STEPHAN BISAHA, BYLINE: The UAW's president, Shawn Fain, has a reputation as a fighter, and he's already looking for his next bout.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SHAWN FAIN: One of our biggest goals coming out of this historic contract victory is to organize like we've never organized before.

BISAHA: As in organize foreign automakers. Detroit may still be known as the Motor City, but since the '80s, the South has attracted more than a dozen assembly plants from foreign automakers like BMW and Hyundai. These plants employ tens of thousands of workers - nearly all of them without a union. Fain wants to change that.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

FAIN: When we return to the bargaining table in 2028, it won't just be with the Big Three but with the big five or big six.

BISAHA: The new UAW deals have workers talking - like at a Nissan plant in Canton, Miss., just north of Jackson. That's where Rahmeel Nash works as a technician. Nash was part of a union campaign at this plant that went on for 10 years before a big loss in 2017. So his advice to Fain is don't drag your feet.

RAHMEEL NASH: You wait too long, people get back to their normal, you know, attitudes. You know, right now, we go ahead and try to do something soon, you know, maybe we can get a lot more progress, you know, while everything is hot.

BISAHA: Now, Fain's not the first UAW president to pick a fight with foreign automakers. Bob King tried it about a decade ago when he held the title. Stephen Silvia wrote a book that includes that time called "The UAW's Southern Gamble." He says King went after Mercedes in Alabama, Volkswagen in Tennessee...

STEPHEN SILVIA: And the Nissan Plant in Canton, Miss., and put a lot of money behind it.

BISAHA: Yeah, and how did that work out for him?

SILVIA: Well, there was a lot of money spent, and there was a lot of effort. But they went 0 for 3.

BISAHA: Foreign automakers came to Southern states in part because they offered incentive packages worth hundreds of millions of dollars. Silvia says conservative lawmakers often used those incentives to pressure the carmakers into fighting against unions. And one of the best ways they'd keep unions out is simply by paying their workers really well. The top-paid technicians at the Mississippi Nissan plant say they earn about $30 an hour. That's close to union wages before the UAW's new deal. In fact, just a week after the UAW reached a tentative agreement with Ford, Toyota promised to raise wages about 9% for some workers.

So you think the Toyota one was in response to the UAW?

SILVIA: Yes, I do. It came, you know, a week later. That's not a coincidence, so...

BISAHA: Now, the UAW contract would come with an even larger immediate pay bump and goes up to 25% over 4 1/2 years. And that gives the UAW something it hasn't had in decades - a big win to show off to non-union workers. Travis Parks is a pro-union technician at the Nissan plant in Mississippi. He says the new contract could set the UAW up for a home run.

TRAVIS PARKS: We might have the bases loaded, but it's still up to the batter, which is the workers at Nissan in Canton, to determine whether or not they hit it out of the park.

BISAHA: He's heard workers talking about unionizing at the plant, just not as many as he'd like. That's because lots of workers are just happy they got the rare Mississippi job that pays well.

PARKS: You know, you don't want to lose that, and that's what they tell them. You know, I got a guy that's - he's a preacher I work with. He said, you know, at least I'm getting my daily bread. That's how he looks at it.

BISAHA: For NPR News, I'm Stephan Bisaha in Birmingham.

(SOUNDBITE OF POPULOUS AND RIVA'S "BATISMO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Stephan Bisaha