Back in December 2006, several workers with Nissan's $3.5 billion, 6,500-employee plant in Smyrna, Tenn., traveled to Mississippi to warn their colleagues at Nissan's plant in Canton about the company's attitude toward health and safety issues.
"I had a line inspection job, crawling in and out of trucks," 59-year-old Gail Corley of Manchester, Tenn., told them. "The many injuries I had were knee injuries, and they sent me to the hospital, sewed me up, and sent me back" until finally "they put me out."
With tears in her eyes, Corley said she'd once considered her Nissan job "a dream come true." She was then anti-union and thrilled to be part of the Nissan "family." A union supporter by 2006, she recalled the grin on the face of a fellow Nissan employee who was tight with management as she prepared to leave the company. "You're 50," he told her. "You can get a job and be a greeting lady at Walmart."
Apparently not much has changed at the Smyrna plant. A recent survey by the Concerned Students for a Better Nissan (CSBN) organization showed deep dissatisfaction with the company's handling of worker health issues.
Of 99 workers surveyed, 26 of whom were interviewed in depth, one-third said they avoid reporting on-the-job injuries out of fear of punishment from managers and supervisors. Half of them said Nissan contests injuries that workers claim are job-related. "The first thing they want to know is what are your hobbies," a 26-year veteran Nissan worker told the surveyors. "If you have a hobby, that is where the injury happened."
Nissan's "Kaizen" model at the workplace supposedly encourages worker feedback to help the company attain "continuous improvement" on the assembly line. The survey showed that "speed of production is valued over employee health, safety, and well-being."
When I called Nissan officials back in 2006 for their response to complaints by Corley and other workers, company spokeswoman Vicki Smith had this to say: "We provide competitive wages and benefits along with a comprehensive shop-floor safety program. We have good employee relations at all our plants. Our policies, procedures, and programs are applied fairly to all."
Gail Corley and many of the workers today at the Smyrna plant would beg to differ. Most of the workers surveyed by CSBN said they have been involved in a "near miss incident at work," yet only half of them reported the incidents because of their distrust and fear of management. When workers do make recommendations, they said, the company does nothing to make substantive changes to fix problems.
"I avoid medical at all costs," a 28-year veteran maintenance worker at the Smyrna plant told surveyors, "because the blame always gets laid at the feet of the worker. A trip to medical can result in termination or a write-up."
The United Auto Workers, which was rejected by Smyrna workers in a past election amid strong company opposition and which is involved in an ongoing unionization campaign today at the Nissan plant in Canton, recently released the survey results. In the report, CSBN said the company "is setting a bleak precedent for future workers" and that "Kaizen and unionization can co-exist and thrive."
CSBN recommended that "Nissan Smyrna consider a labor-management relationship based on mutual respect and cooperation, joint responsibility and shared problem-solving. That starts with workers having a true voice in their workplace through forming a union."