By Bernie Woodall
CANTON, Mississippi (Reuters) - Japanese automaker Nissan Motor Co said it will add workers and start production of the Sentra compact sedan at its Canton plant in Mississippi later this year.
Adding Sentra production along with two previously announced vehicles by the end of the year will mean 1,000 more jobs at the plant, Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant said at an event held at the Canton plant on Thursday.
Nissan officials said 400 of those jobs have already been added to prepare for production of the Xterra mid-sized SUV and the mid-sized pickup truck Frontier, which is starting in November.
Total employment at the Canton plant will rise to 4,500 by year's end, Nissan officials said.
The move comes amid efforts already under way by the United Auto Workers union to organize the existing 3,900 workers at the Nissan plant.
The UAW, along with some Mississippi politicians and the head of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), early this month announced an effort to organize the Canton Nissan workers.
THE SENTRA DRIVE
The Canton plant near the Mississippi state capital of Jackson is also the production site of Nissan's best-selling Altima mid-sized sedan.
The Sentra will be the second all-new model to hit U.S. dealerships in the next 15 months, Nissan said. Sales began a few weeks ago for the 2013 Altima, the first of those five new vehicles.
By the year's end, seven different vehicles will be made at the Canton plant, which Bryant said was a "remarkable" accomplishment.
Bill Krueger, vice chairman of Nissan Americas, said that in 2011, 69 percent of the Nissans sold in the United States were made in North America, and that by 2015, that figure will rise to 85 percent.
Prior to the announcement on Thursday of the addition of Sentra production, Nissan had invested $2.06 billion at the plant, which opened in 2003. Krueger said Nissan will spend more than $20 million on capital improvements at the plant to add the new production.
Production at Canton by next year will be 450,000 vehicles annually, up from the current capacity of 400,000, Krueger said.
Last year, when Toyota Motor Corp opened a new plant near Tupelo in northern Mississippi, Bryant, then governor-elect, said he would resist UAW efforts to organize auto workers. He took the same stance on Thursday in Canton, but said that he will not spend state money to do so. Rather, he will support professional organizations that resist the union.
"I don't believe, personally, that we'd see this growth in the automobile industry to include Toyota and Nissan and the many suppliers if we had union growth in the state of Mississippi," Bryant told reporters at the Canton plant.
The UAW has tried unsuccessfully to organize Nissan workers before. In 2001, workers at Nissan's Smyrna, Tennessee plant voted overwhelmingly against joining the union.
Companies looking to hire workers who are likely to be wooed by union organizers will carefully screen applicants, said Kristin Dziczek, labor relations expert at the Center for Automotive Research.
"It is typical for firms to work very closely to screen their new workers for skills and characteristics," Dziczek said on Thursday.
"I would expect these new workers to be screened for characteristics like gender balance and diversity and be screened for their union proclivities. The union knows it. The company knows it," said Dziczek.
Nissan's Krueger said: "We're looking for great workers with a great attitude and willingness to learn, that's really the key."
NISSAN U.S. SALES
Nissan is aggressively adding to its production of vehicles at the Canton plant, its plant in Smyrna, Tennessee and in Mexico to boost the No. 2 Japanese automaker's profile in the competitive U.S., Canadian and Mexican markets.
Nissan's goal is to achieve a 10-percent market share, up from 8.2 percent in 2011 and 6.2 percent in 2006, Krueger said.
The Sentra for the North American market is now made at the Nissan plant in Aguascalientes in Mexico. Production of the Sentra will continue at Aguascalientes, Nissan officials said.
Sentra sales fell 18 percent in the United States through May this year to 46,773, while Altima sales rose 21 percent to 135,289. Overall, Nissan sales, including its luxury Infiniti brand, rose 12 percent through May, less than the auto industry's gain of 13 percent.
In the United States, Nissan is the sixth-largest automaker and the third-biggest import brand after Japanese automakers Toyota Motor Corp and Honda Motor Co Ltd.
(Additional reporting by Bijoy Koyitty in Bangalore; Editing by Maju Samuel, Supriya Kurane; editing by Carol Bishopric)
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