WHEN the United Auto Workers decided to organize Nissan Motors plant in Smyrna, Tenn., they were taking on not only Japanese management but southern history. The South has long been the United States' most antiunion region. And it was southern culture as much as anything that led to the UAW's embarrassing defeat last week. In elections Thursday, Nissan workers voted by a 2-to-1 margin not to accept UAW representation. The voting was 1,622 to 711.
Antiunion sentiment is a fact of life in the South.
It has the least-unionized manufacturing sector of any region of the country (except for the sparsely populated southwest.) It's conservative, paternalistic, and very rural. Union-organizing drives have often met fierce resistance there, partly because the culture of Southern work does not easily mix with union ideals.
``The Southern worker is an impatient figure when it comes to paying dues to a union, wants to see swift and spectacular results, and is likely to fall away if he doesn't get them,'' wrote journalist Wilbur Cash in a 1941 book called ``The Mind of the South.''
Even with rapid industrialization since World War II, southern attitudes have been slow to change.
``The South as a region is relatively new to industrialization,'' says Daniel Cornfield, a Vanderbilt University sociologist specializing in labor relations. The society's culture remains much more agrarian than, say, highly industrialized Michigan or New York. And the closer to the farm a worker is, Prof. Cornfield says, the less likely he is to be unionized.
According to a Grant Thornton study released last month, 53.6 percent of Michigan manufacturing workers belong to a union compared with 13.5 percent in Tennessee and 3.1 percent in South Carolina. In the nine-state region that makes up the traditional South - Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia - the average unionization of the work force is 11.2 percent, the study said, while in the Great Lakes states it stands at 34.6 percent.
Other forces have played a role as well in southern antiunion sentiment: right-to-work laws, which give workers the privilege of not joining the union even if the company is organized; the pro-industry stance of many state officials; the predominance of labor-intensive industries with special aversion to anything that would raise workers' wages; and the isolated locations where many plants have located.
``To join a union is in part to understand your problem as a workers' problem - and that's a hard thing to bring off in a small town,'' says Jeff Leiter, a sociology professor at North Carolina State University.
Many labor observers believe it is no accident that Japanese automakers have based most of their US plants in rural areas of such states as Tennessee, Kentucky, and southern Ohio - places not generally known for pro-union leanings. Thus, while Japanese management techniques may have played a role in the overwhelming vote against the UAW last week, the culture and attitudes of Nissan's workers were very important factors.
A visit to Nissan's Smyrna plant in early 1986 revealed a work force unlikely to be unionized anytime soon. They were earning more money in better conditions than the jobs they left.
One worker described how he left a small manufacturing facility that was unsafe and whose union seemed unwilling or unable to improve the situation. Compared to that workplace, the spotless Nissan plant was a big step up, the worker said at the time.
In trying to organize the plant, the UAW nevertheless charged that Nissan's assembly line was dangerous - a tactic that obviously backfired. The Japanese plant, which opened in 1983, has also benefited from an extraordinary string of prosperous years and has not yet been forced to make layoffs or ask its workers for cutbacks.
Even at southern companies where workers were dissatisfied, union organizing drives have met with repeated failures.
For example, it took labor organizers 11 years to get J.P. Stevens & Company to recognize the Textile Workers Union of America and another six years before the workers got a union contract.
``It's been much more difficult for unions to organize indigenous Southern corporations,'' Cornfield says. In the pockets of the South where labor has been successful - usually larger metropolitan centers - it has targeted Northern companies that were opening Southern facilities.
After its defeat last week at Nissan, the UAW vowed it would be back, and it is likely that its campaign in Smyrna was only an opening salvo. Labor experts are divided, however, on whether the Southern working culture that organizers face will be more or less antiunion in the coming years.