Workers at a Nissan plant in Mississippi will start voting Thursday on whether they should become part of the United Auto Workers, a crucial opportunity for the union to make inroads in the labor-averse South.

That may be true even if the union loses the vote. Nissan and others have argued that the union isn't expecting to win this time around. Instead, it is using the process to gain wider access to the workers.

"I'm not sure the UAW really thinks it can win. I think UAW is playing the long game here," said F. Vincent Vernuccio, senior fellow at the conservative Mackinac Center, which focuses on labor issues. Vernuccio notes the union has not claimed to have had majority support of the existing workers. Unions only need to show evidence that they have support of 30 percent of workers to force a federally monitored workplace organizing vote. Doing so, however, legally forces the employer to turn over all worker contact information to the union, regardless of whether the workers consent. The UAW wants to use that information to try to build support further down the road, Vernuccio argues.

Nissan has made the same claim. "It would not be surprising if the UAW's primary motivation was to obtain employee contact information as part of the NLRB election process. The UAW can now continue its campaign of deception and empty promises as they work to divide the Canton workforce," the company's North American branch said in a statement this week.

A UAW official could not be reached for comment.

About 3,500 to 3,800 Nissan workers will be eligible to vote in the Canton election, which starts Thursday and ends Friday. Another 3,000 plant workers will not be eligible as they do not work directly for Nissan.

Unions have long struggled to build support in the South, a task that thas become more urgent in recent years as foreign manufacturers, particularly auto companies, have increasingly located there. The UAW's membership stands at 415,000, according to its most recent Labor Department filings. That's down from 464,000 a decade ago and more than 700,000 in 2001.

Most southern states, Mississippi included, have right-to-work laws, which prohibit workers from being forced to join or otherwise financially suppport a union as a condition of employment, a common provision of labor-management contracts in northern states. The laws are widely seen as a major reason why organized labor has weak support in the South.

In 2014, the UAW lost a high-profile effort to organize a Chattanooga Volkswagen plant when workers voted 712-626 against it. That was after Volkswagen gave the union access to the plant and stood neutral in the vote. Nissan has actively opposed the UAW's efforts. The National Labor Relations Board, the main federal labor law enforcement agency, filed an unfair practices complaint against the company last week, acting on allegations made by the union on behalf of six workers.

"Everyone hoped Nissan would live up to its commitments over the years and allow Canton workers the right to cast a ballot free from company coercion and interference," said Gary Casteel, secretary-treasurer of the UAW. "But after seeing threats and intimidation escalate this month, it's now clear that Nissan has no intention of letting employees vote in a free and fair election."

Nissan has denied any wrongdoing. "The UAW has advocated employees only hear one side of the story – the union's side – and that's wrong. The company has the right, and we believe the obligation, to provide employees with information as they prepare to make this important decision, and we will continue to do so," it said in a statement provided to the Washington Examiner.