Nissan marks 10th anniversary of Canton plant

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JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — On May 27, 2003, a gold Nissan Quest minivan burst through a paper barrier to the cheers of assembled workers and dignitaries in the company's new Canton plant.

It was Mississippi's entry into automaking. A decade later, some workers are looking back at their changed lives and Nissan is celebrating with a free Saturday festival at Veterans Memorial Stadium in Jackson that includes a circus, a concert by Kool & the Gang and a fireworks show.

By the day that first minivan rolled off the line, Bob Mullins had been working for Nissan Motor Co. for more than two years. Mullins was vice president of economic development at Hinds County Community College when he got a call asking if he could come to Tennessee the very next day to interview for a job as the Japanese automaker's first Mississippi-hired employee.

"The first thing we did was take a tour of the plant in Smyrna, Tennessee," remembers Mullins, whose employee number is not 1, but 30,001. "It was nothing like I'd ever seen, and I had been to a lot of plants in Mississippi."

Mullins joined human resources director Galen Medlin, who was sent down from Tennessee, in recruiting and hiring workers. They worked first from a rented storefront on the east side of the courthouse square in Canton, and then in the training center built for Nissan on the west side of Interstate 55, across from the future plant site. The building was empty at first, Mullins said, but soon became ridiculously cramped as more employees were added.

When the company sought workers, its minimum requirements were a high school diploma and two years of work experience. Total applicants by the time the plant opened? 87,000.

The odds of getting hired weren't as long as winning the lottery, but new employees could still feel like minor celebrities.

"When you first got hired and you got your Nissan uniform and you went to the store or mall, you always got your questions," said Randy Pippins, repeating a story that most long-time employees tell. "It was like you were a semi-star."

Pippins had dropped out of college and was working at a call center in Starkville when he got hired by Nissan. He started as a paint shop technician while workers got trained and production slowly ramped up.

"You might see one or two vehicles in an area all day long," Pippins said. "That's how slow we were running."

Over time, he completed his bachelor's degree and entered management.

"I never looked back," Pippins said. "I don't see myself going anywhere. I see myself retiring from this place."

The anniversary comes soon after a January announcement that Nissan would start making the Murano crossover vehicle in Canton in late 2014, adding 400 jobs to its current total of about 5,200. Canton, which was built to focus on trucks, now makes six vehicles: the Armada and Xterra SUVs, the Titan and Frontier pickup trucks, the NV van and the Altima sedan. Nissan will start making the Sentra sedan there this summer.

"Over the last decade, the Nissan Canton plant has invested more than $2 billion in the local economy, donated nearly $8 million to community organizations, grown to support more than 5,000 well-paying jobs, and produced more than 2 million vehicles," spokesman Justin Saia said in a statement.

The company's production dipped during recession and is still recovering. Nissan officials said the plant has a capacity to make 450,000 vehicles a year, but only made 233,000 in 2012. Though full-time employees saw their work week cut to 32 hours at one point, none were laid off. With the economic recovery, Nissan announced that it would raise pay for production and maintenance workers by 2 percent in October.

Nissan says production workers in Canton now make an average of $24.47 an hour, while maintenance workers make $28.49, on average.

That's the kind of economic jolt Mississippi leaders were looking for when they awarded hundreds of millions in aid and tax breaks to the company.

"Nissan continues to exceed our expectations, and I greatly value the contributions the company has made in Mississippi," Gov. Phil Bryant said in a statement. "Over the last ten years, Nissan has had a tremendous economic impact on central Mississippi, has catalyzed our state's automotive industry and has continued to grow its Mississippi operations."

But the celebration also comes as the United Auto Workers has stepped up its effort to unionize workers in Canton.

Union supporters, including a number of prominent ministers and politicians, focus on Nissan's employment of contract workers, who make much less than direct Nissan employees. A UAW study released earlier this month found that Nissan could, over 30 years, receive as much as $1.33 billion in aid and tax benefits from the state.

Rosalind Essex, who started at Nissan in 2004, is among the employees supporting a union. They want Nissan to give the UAW equal access to workers inside the plant.

"Nissan has to do better, and together we can do better," Essex said at a news conference releasing the study. "But all the threats and the intimidation have to stop."

When Mississippi beat out six other southeastern states for Nissan in 2000, Chairman and CEO Carlos Ghosn promised that the company's direct jobs would create at least 30,000 other jobs in the state.

And state officials have successfully attracted a second auto assembly plant to Mississippi, Toyota in Blue Springs.

But workers making transportation equipment have fallen in the last 15 years according to federal statistics, in line with nationwide trends. Today, about 25,000 Mississippians work to build vehicles, ships and planes, down 23 percent from a peak of 32,000 in 1998. That's a better performance than the nation as a whole, where employment has fallen 28 percent.

Mississippi auto parts manufacturing peaked at nearly 14,000 workers in 1998, compared to 4,600 today.

The good news is that parts-manufacturing workers have been rising for three years in Mississippi and transportation equipment workers have been rising for two years. Nissan is trying to lure suppliers that need to expand to its Canton campus, Dan Bednarzyk said earlier this year. Until this month, Bednarzyk was the head of Canton operations

"I think there are a lot of opportunities out there to bring suppliers into the state," he said.

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Online:

Nissan's Canton plant: http://www.nissan-canton.com/

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Follow Jeff Amy at http://twitter.com/jeffamy

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