AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
The United Automobile Workers just can't seem to get a win in the South. The union spent years trying to organize at a Nissan plant in Mississippi. Yet earlier this month, workers there voted just like they have twice before at Nissan's flagship factory in Tennessee. They said no thanks. The UAW says worker intimidation played a big role. But also, it can't seem to convince Southern autoworkers that they need a union. Here's Blake Farmer of member station WPLN.
BLAKE FARMER, BYLINE: An SUV moves down the assembly line in Canton, Miss., as workers slap on side panels and seal up sunroofs. They're in a clean, air-conditioned plant, making $20 to $25 an hour, and it's a real step up from many in much of the South.
JEFFREY MOORE: See; a lot of people come up in these areas where back in the day, you did a lot of cotton picking and farming and, you know, out in the fields and stuff.
FARMER: Jeffrey Moore was hired by Nissan 15 years ago when it opened this plant. He says it's tricky when a colleague feels fortunate to have the job in the first place.
MOORE: When you come up in a family that didn't have much and you're finally making that money that, you know, a lot of people wish that they could make...
FARMER: Moore says it's even harder when supervisors are going around telling people they might be out of work if the union comes in. He figures that changed a lot of minds for co-workers who signed union cards to initiate the Mississippi vote but had second thoughts in the secret ballot. Of course unions are in Moore's blood. His dad was a postal worker and a labor leader, and this is a region where someone can go through life not knowing any card-carrying union members.
GEORGE DOOLEY: I'm not saying that Nissan is not a good place to work.
FARMER: George Dooley has worked at Nissan's assembly plant in Smyrna, Tenn., for 25 years. Before the vote in Mississippi, he made a pitch to workers there about regretting his own vote against unionization in 2001. The UAW had already failed to organize the plant in 1989. Most recently, the union was unsuccessful getting plant-wide buy-in at Volkswagen in Chattanooga.
DOOLEY: The key is when you have a voice like what the union represents for the workers, you will have a better working experience. I'm a witness.
FARMER: Nearing retirement, Dooley figures his pension would be more generous if someone had been bargaining on his behalf. But the epiphany may have come too late. Republican politicians around the South like Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam are hoping the defeat in Mississippi means they can stop fending off the UAW.
BILL HASLAM: It was a fairly overwhelming vote - 2 to 1. That's a pretty strong message. And so do I think that's good for automobile manufacturing growth in the southeast in Tennessee? I do.
FARMER: Haslam says it certainly won't hurt as Southern states try to land a plant jointly run by Toyota and Mazda that would create thousands of jobs. The UAW is still trying to salvage its work in Mississippi, lodging formal complaints that Nissan crossed the line in its anti-union campaign. If the union plans to push for another vote elsewhere, Kane Plunkett is proof there's convincing to do. He's been on the job at Nissan's Tennessee assembly plant for two years and says he'd be open to a union if they could get him more paid time off. But he doesn't hear much good about the UAW.
KANE PLUNKETT: Most of the time it's just bad. Like, they take money out of your paycheck. You got to have somebody there to talk to your supervisor.
FARMER: And at 21 years old, Plunkett looks at his friends and feels like he's got it pretty good. That's a fairly common mindset, says Professor Dan Cornfield. He's a labor expert at Vanderbilt University who says Southern autoworkers largely compare their economic status to their neighbors.
DAN CORNFIELD: The more the Southern economy becomes linked to the global economy, then the focus of the average worker in the region will shift away from the local labor market conditions.
FARMER: Cornfield says it may take another generation before people who build cars in the South are comfortable betting on the benefits of a union. For NPR News, I'm Blake Farmer in Nashville.
(SOUNDBITE OF RATATAT'S "CHERRY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.