union workers at Nissan Motor Co.'s Mississippi plant cast themselves as underdogs Tuesday, but encouraged workers to believe supporters of the United Auto Workers could triumph in a vote on union representation.
"We will win," said Travis Parks, a Nissan employee and union supporter who lives in Carthage, Mississippi.
Those supporters filed petitions Monday with the National Labor Relations Board seeking the election, after years of seeking support at the 6,400-worker plant. The petition seeks an election on July 31 and Aug. 1, but the National Labor Relations Board will ultimately set a date if it certifies the petition.
"The only thing that we want is an opportunity to have a fair election, get us a contract to where we can negotiate with the company, so we can negotiate our safety, our benefits and our pay," said body shop technician Rahmeel Nash, a 14-year-employee.
Nissan managers say they believe a union would be bad for the company, but also say workers are free to choose. Nissan spokeswoman Parul Bajaj said the company will not be passive in the face of the organizing drive, signaling managers will try to dissuade workers from supporting the UAW.
"Under U.S. law, we have the right to provide employees with all the facts to ensure that they make the best decision for them and the Canton community," Bajaj wrote in an email. "We intend to exercise that right."
Bajaj says workers don't need a union because Nissan provides good pay and benefits and a safe work environment. Nissan says it has never laid off any of its own workers in Canton, although it did cut their hours during the recession and there were layoffs among contract workers.
The federal labor board accuses Nissan, in ongoing litigation, of several violations surrounding union organizing, including allowing managers to illegally question and threaten union members. Nissan denies wrongdoing.
At Tuesday's event, workers repeatedly called on Nissan to remain neutral.
"We, the Nissan workers, only ask for a fair election with no intimidation," said Antonio Hoover, another body shop technician.
The UAW has only won one vote among workers at a foreign-owned auto plant in the South, which has long marketed itself to industries as being unfriendly to unions. That first-ever win, among 160 maintenance workers at Volkswagen AG's plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee, came only after the UAW lost a 2014 vote among all workers. That campaign featured heavy outside pressure from anti-union groups and politicians.
Pushback from Mississippi's economic and political leadership could be similarly sharp.
"Detroit is the perfect example of the damage the United Autoworkers can do to automotive manufacturing," Gov. Phil Bryant said in a statement. "Mississippi is a right-to-work state because employees deserve the freedom to support their families without union interference."
Union supporters disputed that the UAW would hurt Nissan. Rather, they said, worker representation would help the company.
"They need the help of the workers to where we could come together and make sure that we're making the best product and our people have the best safety, benefits and pay that we have to offer," Nash said. "We do not want Nissan to fail. We want them to be successful."
The pro-union campaign has sought to link support for the union with civil rights for African-Americans, with participation from ministers including the Rev. Isiac Jackson, head of Mississippi's largest black Baptist denomination.
"This is a day that some said could never be in the state of Mississippi, but we discovered yesterday that we have gotten there," said Jackson, chairman of pro-union group Mississippi Alliance for Fairness at Nissan. "The battle is not won until you pull the lever."
Workers at Nissan's plant in Smyrna, Tennessee, rejected the UAW in 1989 and 2001 votes, but no election has been held in Canton. The Mississippi campaign has featured support from the NAACP and actor Danny Glover, as well as a rally in March headlined by independent Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, a former presidential hopeful.
The Canton plant began production in 2003 and has an annual capacity of 450,000 vehicles, concentrating on trucks. The company currently makes Altima sedans, Frontier and Titan pickups, Murano SUVs and NV vans there. Nissan posted the equivalent of $6 billion of worldwide profit in 2016 on revenue of more than $100 billion.