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UAW Criticizes Nissan For Use Of 'Perma-Temps'

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Nissan has been growing like crazy in the U.S., with an American workforce that now exceeds 22,000. And the company has swelled, for the most part, through the increasingly common and controversial use of temporary workers. Blake Farmer of member station WPLN in Nashville has more.

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BLAKE FARMER, BYLINE: With a quick honk, an Altima Sedan drives off the assembly line in Smyrna, Tenn. This mammoth facility made more vehicles than any other plant in America last year - well over a half-million. Three shifts a day, 8,400 workers and thousands are effectively long-term temps.

JUSTIN SAIA: We really shirk at the notion of the word temporary.

FARMER: Nissan spokesman Justin Saia says the jobs are meant to be long-term with benefits. The wages may be considerably less than full-fledged employees, but they're still right around the average manufacturing wage in the South.

SAIA: We don't provide a distinction between the two.

FARMER: But there certainly is a distinction in pay. I mean, you're talking about folks doing the same job for, you know, $15 an hour and other folks doing it for $25 an hour.

SAIA: Yeah. Well, what I would say about the notion that the employees are doing the same job making different pay, what you've got is employees, in a lot of cases, who've come to the company during the recession as contract workers who are unskilled.

FARMER: Just a few years ago, Nissan didn't really use temps and the hourly assembly line jobs were highly coveted. They offered a good salary to support a family with bonuses, a pension and big discounts on a shiny Nissan. When the downturn came, the company even offered buyouts exceeding $100,000. As the economy recovered, the company needed help ramping up. Enter the new middleman.

GREG PERSINGER: You need to talk to me. My name's Greg Persinger.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Hi.

PERSINGER: I'm with Yates Services.

FARMER: Persinger shakes hands with folks at a job fair who want to work for Nissan. He's the HR manager for Yates Services, which doesn't just do the hiring. The employees work for Yates, sometimes for years, before getting on board with Nissan. Applicant Benjamin Fouse has a strong reaction to what's become a standard model in the sector.

BENJAMIN FOUSE: Oh, yes, yes. I hate that. I do. I do hate that. I've been through it a couple of times.

FARMER: But even the lower pay and benefits are attractive to Megan Diebold, who says she's trying to break into the auto industry.

MEGAN DIEBOLD: I have a friend that works for Yates, and he's feeding his family. So that's all that really matters.

FARMER: Labor unions, on the other hand, are unhappy. The United Auto Workers call these kinds of employees, perma-temps. They're using the issue in their attempt to unionize workers at foreign-owned plants in the South.

GARY CASTEEL: We think Nissan's the poster child for this abuse of this practice.

FARMER: The UAW's Gary Casteel acknowledges that unionized U.S. automakers have a two-tier wage structure now, but he points out labor contracts limit that. The UAW estimates more than half of Nissan's plant workers are in some kind of temporary situation. The company contends the percentage is far less.

Whatever the actual figure, it's drawing criticism beyond the UAW. Mike Sparks used to work at Nissan. He's now a Republican Tennessee legislator who wants to make sure Nissan doesn't receive government incentives based on creating less-than-permanent jobs.

REPRESENTATIVE MIKE SPARKS: You want to let the private sector kind of determine and let the free market determine these things. But remember, once government's involved, free market's off the table.

FARMER: Currently, the job market leaves Robert Bruhn with few choices. He's a temp who's driven an hour each way to the plant for two years, putting some serious mileage on the car he bought when he started. He reads the odometer.

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ROBERT BRUHN: There we go, 102,875.

FARMER: Bruhn says he'd like a job closer to home, even for a couple dollars less an hour. But Nissan is still the best deal around.

BRUHN: They can get away with it because there's enough people out there that need jobs. I mean, people have to work.

FARMER: And right now, Nissan is still paying enough to keep the assembly line moving. For NPR News, I'm Blake Farmer in Nashville. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.