Several years ago, the United Auto Workers began a campaign to unionize roughly 4,000 workers at the Nissan auto plant in Canton, Mississippi. Organizers knew from experience that they would have to reach beyond the factory walls for support in order to achieve their goal. In many ways, the campaign has already made that leap — students at local college campuses have created support groups, and workers as far away as Brazil recently rallied to support a worker whom management had disciplined for his pro-union activities.
And on Monday, April 28, the UAW took that mission another step further. Along with the union federation IndustriALL, it officially requested that the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), an influential organization of 34 relatively wealthy industrial countries, initiate a review of Nissan’s observance of OECD labor rights standards.
Under this procedure, the “National Contact Point” (NCP) of the United States — a State Department official — would review Nissan’s labor rights record and invite the participation of officials from the UAW, IndustriALL, Japan (Nissan’s corporate home), France (the base for Renault, a major investor in Nissan), and the Netherlands (corporate base for the Renault-Nissan Alliance).
If the unions and the corporation both agree to participate in the process, the American NCP will gather facts about the Canton plant for three months, most likely carrying on confidential talks with the NCPs from other countries. Eventually, he could recommend bringing in a mediator, likely the U.S. Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service. Generally, some agreement is reached — or the case is closed — within a year’s time.
This union action is an attempt to focus global attention on Nissan’s alleged violations of international labor rights. Workers report that Nissan relentlessly promotes an anti-union message at the factory in Canton. From the day workers are hired, employees say, they are subjected to regular meetings with management and continuous operation of television monitors inside the factory, both of which deliver frequently repeated anti-union messages. Organizers say Nissan also uses the employment of hundreds of part-time workers, who work alongside full-time workers at roughly half the hourly pay, as an indirect anti-union tool to remind workers how the company could replace them at a far lower cost if they organized.
To work against such a reported culture of fear, the union groups initiated their pursuit of OECD fact-finding and mediation with Nissan this week to create a non-combative process for finally conducting a union representation election in Canton.
Such a strategy “sounds good,” says Jeff Moore, a pro-union Canton worker who says he is concerned about safety, “the company’s compliance with labor laws,” and “how [management representatives] conduct themselves in the plant.”
A co-worker was just fired, he says, for “threatening” a foreman, even though their conversation about the job allegedly took place after work and outside the workplace. But the worker does not have the due process and protection of his job that a grievance procedure with union representation would provide.
Over the past several years at Canton, union organizers have relied on traditional tactics of reaching out to Nissan workers at home and relying on pro-union workers to talk to co-workers while they were in the plant.
But the UAW knew it faced dedicated opponents. Nissan vigorously fought and defeated two earlier attempts to organize its Smyrna, Tennessee, auto factory, even though it works with unions in nearly every other country where it has a plant. And the company has thwarted requests for a fair election procedure from community groups, local political leaders, the state chapter of the NAACP and other labor advocates.
In light of this resistance from Nissan, the UAW has turned to international organizations for support to find a workable plan. Through the meetings they’ve requested with Nissan, UAW leaders intend to pursue a relatively peaceful management-labor paradigm — and if the OECD procedures don’t work, they’ll consult the United Nations Global Compact.
Both groups have standards for behavior of multinational corporations, including adherence to the core principles of the International Labor Organization: protection of the right to organize and the prohibition of forced labor, child labor, and gender and racial discrimination. The OECD drafted its guidelines after scandals erupted in the late 1970s surrounding multinationals’ overseas activity. In 2011, it revised and strengthened these tenets. All 34 member countries—which include Japan, France and the Netherlands—commit themselves to making sure that multinationals based in their territory follow the rules.
While the OECD expects governments to enforce labor standards on their corporations, Global Compact is a social responsibility initiative targeting corporations themselves as vehicles of change. In order to be “listed” as part of the group, companies voluntarily pledge to follow ten principles covering labor and human rights, environmental protection and opposition to corruption. According to its website, Nissan has been part of the Global Compact since 2004.
Over the years, unions from all over the world have tried in hundreds of cases to use the OECD process and guidelines to pressure companies into following labor law, with varying degrees of success. In 2003, UNITE was able to persuade a French owner of a Brylane clothing warehouse to improve management behavior during an organizing drive; in 2006, however, the UAW lost its representation of workers at a Massachusetts facility of French multinational Saint-Gobain despite its request for OECD mediation.
It is unlikely that any of the parties will refuse to cooperate altogether. But the process does not always result in the kind of mediation the UAW is seeking; and if it does, mediation could pressure the union to make unwanted concessions. For the UAW and IndustriALL, however, one major benefit of the process may simply be the launching of more serious discussions with Nissan, especially if they also involve executives from Renault, who are reputedly less antagonistic to unions than either Japanese or American managers.
Ultimately, though, the matter will come down to whether the company feels the effects of mounting pressure from UAW’s allies, whether they’re within arm’s reach in Canton or half a world away.
“Nobody has any illusions that there’s any international agency” that could really enforce a decision in such a situation, says Cornell University School of Labor and Industrial Relations senior lecturer Lance Compa. “It’s a moral compulsion in the end.”
David Moberg, a senior editor of In These Times, has been on the staff of the magazine since it began publishing in 1976. Before joining In These Times, he completed his work for a Ph.D. in anthropology at the University of Chicago and worked for Newsweek. He has received fellowships from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Nation Institute for research on the new global economy.