The United Auto Workers (UAW) met with several hundred employees of Nissan’s Smyrna, Tennessee, plant on Tuesday, a sign the Detroit Free Press said the union was making progress in its latest campaign to 'organise' [unionise] a car factory in the south.

The meeting occurred at a local meeting hall to discuss the UAW’s effort to hold a “fair election,” a union official familiar with the meeting told the Free Press.

“We were surprised at the level of support,” the official said. “It speaks to the amount of dissatisfaction in the company.”

Nissan spokesman Justin Saia said the company maintains a relationship with its employees that is “based on transparency and mutual respect.”

“The choice on who represents the employees is their choice to make,” Saia told the paper.

The UAW accused Nissan of implying the plant, which began production in 1983, could close if workers vote for UAW representation. Plant workers said Nissan has expanded the use of temporary employees who are paid much less than their Nissan counterparts while performing the same or similar work.

The 5.9m sq ft plant, which celebrates its 30th anniversary in June, has more than 6,000 workers on three shifts, who produce several vehicles, including the Nissan Leaf electric vehicle and Altima sedan.

UAW president Bob King has made organising a foreign car plant one of the union’s top priorities. Two early UAW organising drives – one in 1989 and the second in 2011 – at the Smyrna plant failed to attract more than 30% of the votes for the union. Many of those workers are still employed at the plant.

Center for Automotive Research analyst Kristin Dziczek, who tracks labour relations throughout the industry, told the Free Press the UAW’s meetings with Smyrna workers “took me by surprise”.

“That sounds like a toehold to me,” she said. “The fact that they’re still there in some force is showing that they think they’ve got something here.”

Steve Ferguson, who has been a temporary employee for two years, said he’s backing the UAW but his colleagues “feel like they’re bullied” into not organising.

“They come in there and they work their tails off every day,” he said. “I’m 30 years old. I have two little girls and a wife to provide for. I want to know that my job is secure. I want to know that I can go into work tomorrow and I’m going to have a job.”

Saia said Nissan does “routinely meet with our employees to openly discuss a variety of important matters pertinent to our business.

“We’ve always supported and encouraged direct communication between our managers and employees,” he said.

The UAW official said workers are increasingly backing the union’s efforts because of how they’re being treated on the factory floor.

“Pay is not the issue to them,” he said, but he added, “they haven’t had an increase in seven years.”

Saia said Nissan had recently introduced a “pathway” programme at its US plants to give temporary workers the ability to become permanent employees. He declined to say how many temporary employees are working at the plant, though he said the plant has more than 6,000 workers overall.

The Detroit Free Press said Nissan workers, both permanent and temporary, could take a vote if organisers submit a petition to the National Labor Relations Board signed by at least 30% of the workplace’s employees, according to the NLRB web site.

“Temp workers are very worried because they’re so vulnerable – they’re trying to be made permanent, so there’s a huge amount of fear,” the official said.

Until now, much of the UAW’s organising effort has been focused on another Nissan plant - in Canton, Mississippi, where a group called the Mississippi Alliance for Fairness at Nissan has been ramping up pressure on Nissan in recent months, the paper noted.