In Detroit, the Big Three car companies maintain an uneasy truce with the United Automobile Workers union. Troubles flare up from time to time, but both sides usually manage to work through their differences. Like rival cousins, they've been through a lot together.
For foreign automakers doing business in the U.S., the situation is very different, and at Nissan's manufacturing facility in Canton, Mississippi, the pot is about to boil over -- again.
Workers at the plant have been trying to unionize for years, but to hear them tell it, they've faced intimidation and scare tactics from Nissan management. Things got so bad last winter that actor Danny Glover visited the Detroit Auto Show to help workers stage a protest.
According to the Wall Street Journal, tensions escalated again this week because of a report issued by the Mississippi chapter of the NAACP. A press release from the organization states that Nissan "is in violation of international labor standards on freedom of association through its aggressive interference with workers trying to exercise their fundamental right to organize a union".
The report offers first-hand accounts of meetings hosted by Nissan management in which workers were allegedly "forced to watch films and hear speeches filled with implicit threats of plant closure if they formed a union". It also insists that Nissan "orchestrated one-on-one meetings with supervisors warning of dire consequences if they choose union representation".
The NAACP goes on to issue a list of demands from Nissan, like giving workers on-site access to a UAW representative and explaining to employees that the Canton facility won't close if workers choose to unionize. Noting that Nissan deals with unions in many other parts of the globe, the NAACP has published the report in several foreign languages and markets, including Japan. Nissan has issued a statement denouncing the report and denying any wrongdoing.
As the Wall Street Journal points out, Nissan isn't the only foreign automaker being targeted by the UAW. The union has also been trying to unionize Daimler and Volkswagen workers in Tuscaloosa, Alabama and Chattanooga, Tennessee, respectively.
What the Journal doesn't discuss -- perhaps because it's a touchy subject, perhaps because it's obvious -- is that the NAACP's involvement at Nissan stems from the fact that many workers at the Canton plant are African American. That puts Nissan at a distinct PR disadvantage.
Put another way, friction between white-collar and blue-collar employees is found in companies large and small, from coast to coast. But in Mississippi and elsewhere across the South, those collar lines can often appear like color lines: black and white, not blue and white.
And that's Nissan's weak spot.
Generally speaking, unions are losing power in the U.S. If the circumstances were different, Nissan would likely have the upper hand in this war.
But if workers continue framing this as a race issue -- whether or not that's justified in this case -- there's no easy way out.