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Common told Nissan workers that their quest for a better life is attainable. Photos by Chris Todd.
Grammy award-winning singer and actor Common performed before a sold-out audience at Jackson State University March 21 in support of Mississippi Nissan workers as they expand their effort to organize a union at the Nissan plant in Canton. Other guests at the event included actor and activist Danny Glover, local performance artists, Mississippi Alliance for Fairness at Nissan (MAFFAN) members, Nissan workers, and student supporters from Mississippi Student Justice Alliance (MSJA) and Concerned Students for a Better Nissan (CSBN), who are calling on Nissan to respect its workforce’s labor rights. Workers who have adopted the slogan “Tell Nissan: Labor rights are civil rights” see their effort for a fair union election as an extension of the civil rights movement from half a century ago.
Singer, producer and actor Sean “Diddy” Combs added his support to the campaign with a welcome greeting video to the audience before the performance began.
The event was held in support of Nissan workers in Canton who want the company to stop intimidating and threatening workers to discourage them from considering a union. Workers want to exercise their civil right to form a union so they can have input into a variety of workplace concerns, including unsafe working conditions, and the company’s growing use of temporary workers who do the same work for years as direct hires for much less pay and benefits and no job security.
Concert participants also unveiled upcoming stops on CSBN’s multi-city Nissan Truth Tour, which is exposing the intimidation and threats pro-union workers have faced from Nissan for years. Young people are a nationwide, growing part of the movement to support Nissan workers, saying they don’t want to work in an economy based on temporary work status. At the event, students announced a petition drive they’ve launched in support of Nissan workers.
Common said workers can rest assured that their desire for a better life is attainable. “I’m a real advocate for love and spreading love. When you operate out of love, there is no fear,” said Common. “There is no fear anymore. We’re ready to stand up for what we believe in and stand up for justice.”
Danny Glover: Mississippi was the battleground for the civil rights movement and now the global workers' rights movement.
Actor and activist Danny Glover, who is involved in a variety of humanitarian causes, said the Nissan organizing campaign is of special importance to him. “Of all the worker struggles around the world, the Nissan workers of Mississippi stand out to me. For a place that’s one of the most important battle grounds of the civil rights movement to now be the center of the global workers’ rights movement is significant. I am committed to the campaign to win the right to organize for Nissan workers,” said Glover.
“When workers at Nissan began to organize a union, Nissan responded with implied threats that they would leave Mississippi if workers unionized,” said Reverend R. Isiac Jackson, Jr., MAFFAN chair and president of the General Missionary Baptist State Convention of Mississippi. “While we welcome the presence of foreign-owned companies like Nissan in Mississippi, we will not tolerate a company treating Mississippians as second-class citizens. The Mississippi Alliance for Fairness at Nissan will carry the message in Mississippi and throughout the world insisting that Nissan allow a fair process that allows workers to freely decide on unionization,” said Jackson. MAFFAN was founded after Congressman Bennie Thompson called on Mississippi leaders to form a committee to stand up for Nissan workers.
Nissan workers Betty Jones and Jeff Moore were among many who enjoyed Common's performance.
Mississippi NAACP State President Derrick Johnson says the workers’ efforts to have a voice on the job are a civil and labor rights issue. “The NAACP and labor unions have long history of collaboration,” said Johnson. “The NAACP fully supports this campaign, and believes the campaign is a strong example of that partnership.” Johnson said Nissan’s treatment of Mississippi workers is wrong, particularly because Nissan has unionized auto plants around the world but not in Mississippi.
Canton Nissan worker Shelia Wilson says Nissan’s anti-union intimidation campaign has been going on for years and that the company needs to respect the labor and civil rights of workers, which are the same. “We have a fundamental human right to organize in the U.S. Nissan’s intimidation and threats are keeping us from exercising those rights,” said Wilson. She said the company holds one-one-one and roundtable anti-union meetings with workers, shows anti-union videos and creates a climate of fear by implying the plant will close if workers unionize, all without allowing pro-union discussion. Wilson said workers want a union so they can improve workplace safety and the company’s treatment of injured workers, and have input into the company’s growing use of temporary workers who do the same work as direct hires but for much less pay and benefits and with no job security, with many left in temp status for years.
MSJA and CSBN member Monica Atkins says young people are an expanding part of the Nissan organizing struggle because they don’t want to enter a workforce built on insecure temporary jobs and denial of workers’ labor and civil rights. “We want better for today’s Nissan workers and for ourselves tomorrow,” said Atkins. “College students around the country are a growing force behind these workers. We are continuing the strong civil rights movement that students have historically participated in, particularly in Mississippi. Young people are part of this state’s civil rights legacy and we will be a part of the civil rights future,” said Atkins.
Delegates at the 2014 UAW National Community Action Program Conference in Washington await President Bob King's address. Photo by Jenny Sarabia.
By Vince Piscopo and Joan Silvi
WASHINGTON -- It used to be that when workers wanted to organize their workplace, the opposition came from management inside the plant and company headquarters.
But, as UAW President Bob King told delegates on the second day of the 2014 UAW National Community Action Program (CAP) Conference, workers now have to fight the deep pockets of far-right extremists such as the Koch Brothers, Grover Norquist, and the politicians they fund, such as Sen. Bob Corker and Gov. Bill Haslam in Tennessee.
“The forces against us are more aggressive than ever in history,” King said. “They have millions of dollars they are investing against us.”
Far-right backed groups are on the ground in Chattanooga, Tenn., trying to disrupt Volkswagen workers from winning union representation, even though a strong majority has already signed cards indicating their desire to become UAW members. They are directly injecting themselves into the campaign, even though Volkswagen has exercised excellent corporate responsibility by allowing its workers to have a free and fair choice on representation without the fear and intimidation that has become the hallmark of so many organizing campaigns in the United States.
These well-funded groups haven’t stopped at blocking organizing drives, either. Right-to-work legislation was a carefully planned campaign at the state level to strip workers of their ability to win economic gains through collective bargaining. The question, King said, is what will UAW members do to protect the gains we have from being further eroded?
“We can shrivel up and let right-wing forces carry on or we can say we’re going to fight,” King told the 1,500 CAP delegates in attendance. They responded with a boisterous standing ovation indicating their desire to take the fight head on.
To win in 2014 and beyond, it will take resources, but it also takes participation, said King. The re-election of President Obama in 2012 is an example of the level of participation needed in this year’s mid-term elections. Our participation, especially the one-on-one conversations our activists had with members, carried the day for the Obama campaign. President King said he was told by two top Obama advisers on two separate occasions that “without the UAW we would not have won this election.”
Participation cuts both ways, though. The 2010 midterm elections were disastrous. Tea Party Republicans helped take over the House, and blocked just about everything the president proposed to get the country moving forward. It led to the election of right-wing governors such as Scott Walker in Wisconsin, Rick Snyder in Michigan and John Kasich in Ohio. All three carried water for extreme right-wing groups bent on destroying collective bargaining and harming working families in their states.
“We’ve seen the downside of elections having consequences,” he said.
There’s an opportunity to retain the Democrat-controlled Senate and win back the GOP-controlled House. Doing so will allow the president to carry out his agenda to raise the minimum wage, provide for the unemployed and appoint more officials such as Labor Secretary Thomas Perez, who cares about the poor and the middle class.
“I think history demonstrates you can’t have a strong democracy without a strong middle class,” King said.
“Last night you heard Thomas Perez say, ‘You can’t have a strong middle class without strong unions.’”
King looked back on the last few years and noted that our members have had some significant success in bargaining and organizing. The 2011 auto negotiations have led to more than $20 billion of investment and more than 20,000 new direct jobs. For every one of those jobs created by our bargaining, there are nine more jobs in auto suppliers and other sectors.
“The largest creator of middle-class, decent-paying, jobs has been the auto industry and that is because of collective bargaining,” he told delegates. “We’re the No. 1 creator of manufacturing jobs in America.”
In the heavy truck industry, thousands of jobs have been brought back from Mexico to North Carolina and South Carolina. King said the UAW convinced Navistar to re-source work back to UAW plants, and noted when Navistar had to close plants, it closed non-represented facilities.
There are now 11,000 dues-paying members in the gaming sector, and key organizing victories in Ohio and Las Vegas in the last two years. The Las Vegas victory opens the door to adding tens of thousands more members to our ranks.
“This is an area with tremendous growth potential,” King said. “We’re very excited.”
Those wins would not be possible without building coalitions with other unions. And at Nissan, building coalitions with groups inside and outside of labor has strengthened Nissan workers’ fight for a free and fair vote on union representation. King said the president of Nissan’s union in Japan has pledged support, as have unions in South Africa, Brazil and elsewhere. Environmental groups such as the Sierra Club, the Blue-Green Alliance, and The Union of Concerned Scientists have written to Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn, expressing their displeasure with the corporation’s virulent anti-union stance in the United States, while accepting unionization in just about every other nation in which it does business.
These coalitions bear fruit, as evidenced by the Volkswagen organizing. Clearly the courageous leadership by Volkswagen workers on the plant floor and the support of VW Works Council and IG Metall,have built majority support and the opportunity for VW Chattanooga workers to choose UAW representation. VW, so used to successfully working with unions in other countries, understands that the works council system of worker representation benefits everyone, King said.
‘We’re really in a position to get an historic victory down there,” he added.
An example of neutrality working is at New York University, where academic workers won back their union in 2013. They had a union and a contract until the Bush administration-led National Labor Relations Board decided those workers were “students” and stripped it away. The UAW fought that decision and, after an eight-year battle, won back their representation in December.
“I don’t care whether you are in the south, west, east or north. If workers have a free and open opportunity to join a union, the will join a union,” King said. “NYU is a great example of that because when NYU had neutrality the vote was 644 for and 10 against.”
The organizing wins over the last few years help build our union’s density and help our ability to win better contracts. Two-tier wages were not something the UAW wanted, but were necessary because of the financial health of the automakers, King said. In some bargaining, the union has been able to eliminate two-tier systems or drastically reduce the difference in wages between tiers, King said. In other cases, it won’t happen overnight. Building union strength through organizing and applying the resources necessary in bargaining will help bridge that difference, especially in the upcoming 2015 auto negotiations. But member participation in the union’s efforts is the most critical component, King said.
“You are the key activists. We need you to do even more,” King told CAP delegates. “You know and I know that there are many of our members who are inactive.
“They’ve got to be involved in the process. You can’t complain about the result if you are not involved in the process.”
Nissan worker Dionne Monroe says the company subjects its workers to rountable meets with managment to disparage unions. Photo by Jenny Sarabia.
Another highlight of today’s CAP conference activities was remarks to delegates from a worker from the Nissan plant in Canton, Miss. Workers there are campaigning for a free and fair election and have generated support from students, civil and labor rights leaders, and unions from around the world. Canton Nissan worker Dionne Monroe says she and her co-workers are routinely subjected to intimidation and threats from Nissan management simply for supporting a union.
“They subject us to roundtable meetings with management where they talk negatively about the union and hold one-on-one meetings with workers where they also talk about how unions are not needed,” said Monroe, while workers are not allowed to hear positive messages about how the union can benefit them and the company.
She told the story of Canton Nissan worker Chip Wells who faced numerous disciplinary actions from management after he was publicly interviewed about his pro-union views. He was later reinstated by Nissan after union members in Brazil demonstrated about the unfair treatment of Wells.
Monroe also described the unfairness of Nissan’s heavy reliance on temporary workers, many who do the same work as direct hires but make far less in wages and benefits and often stay in precarious temp status for years. “Nissan temps deserve the same pay as direct hires,” said Monroe. “We want a voice. We need a union.”
Local 2368's Luisa Rivera Sanchez: A strong union would stop Nissan's intimidation tactics. Photo by Joan Silvi.
Monroe also told delegates about an upcoming public event in support of her and her co-workers that’s happening next month. “On March 21, the singer Common will perform to kick off Freedom Spring in conjunction with Freedom Summer in Jackson, Miss., the commemorate 50 years of civil rights history in Miss.,” announced Monroe. That event is all part of the growing show of support for the right to organize that Nissan workers are campaigning for in Miss. Workers in Canton say Nissan works with unions at its other plants around the world and shouldn’t treat Miss. workers as second-class citizens by denying them that same international labor right. As Monroe’s shirt stated, “Labor rights are civil rights.” They certainly are.
CAP delegate Luisa Rivera Sanchez is president of Local 2368 which represents state agriculture department workers in Puerto Rico. She said Monroe’s comments were moving. “Dionne’s remarks remind me of the importance of job security you get with a union, especially when I hear her describe the intimidation meetings and threats made to Nissan workers in Mississippi, and how the company tries to scare workers out of wanting a union. Once you have a strong union those things don’t happen,” said Sanchez.
Congresswoman Marcia Fudge, D-Ohio, told delegates that she opposes the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement.
Congresswoman Marcia Fudge, D-Ohio, brought an inspiring message to delegates, saying its unions that keep America’s middle class strong.
“I work with people who don’t believe in opportunity,” said Fudge. “When labor is strong people do well.” Fudge also touched on the country’s growing wealth gap and how it’s happening at the expense of workers, thanks to the wealthy who aren’t paying the taxes they should be. “I don’t understand that people would use you to elevate their wages based on your hard work but not want to pay their fair share. Something is wrong with that!” she told an applauding audience.
The congresswoman also referenced trade legislation known as Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which the UAW is opposed to without significant changes to protect the domestic U.S. auto market and workers’ right to organize.
“I’m not supporting or voting for TPP. … I no longer support the fact that people work 40 hours a week and are still in poverty,” said Fudge, comments which brought delegates to their feet in a standing ovation. “Tell Congress (when you make your Capitol Hill visits to lobby your representatives this week) that the only reason there’s a middle class is because of you!” said Fudge. That’s definitely a message CAP delegates are ready to share.
Local 6000's Bob Sisler: Fix income inequality. Photo by Joan Silvi.
Bob Sisler is a delegate from Local 6000 which represents 22,000 workers in state government in Michigan. “She was concerned about people’s needs,” said Sisler after Fudge’s address. “There’s income inequality and that’s wrong. Too many people can’t live decently even though they are working,” said Sisler.
Local 2322's Jocelyn Silverlight: Congresswoman Fudge an inspiring leader. Photo by Joan Silvi.
Delegate Jocelyn Silverlight is president of 3,000-member Local 2322 in west Massachusetts, which represents post doctorate researchers, resident assistants and other academic workers at University of Massachusetts-Amherst as well as workers at 15 health and human service organizations. She said it was encouraging seeing a woman in such a powerful position of leadership in Congress. “To have such a powerful woman of color leading us is inspiring. She is breaking the mold,” said Silverlight.
Local 1796's Melvin Walker: His union job keeps him in the middle class. Photo by Joan Silvi.
Delegate Melvin Walker is a licensed boiler operator at Wayne County Community College in Detroit. The Local 1796 member says Congresswoman Marcia Fudge’s comments about the middle class being created by unions really hit home with him. “I am part of that middle class thanks to my union job. Now, I can provide for my family and my children. I can keep them in the middle class.”
Mississippi autoworkers will tell about their fight for dignity and respect on the job by unionizing against “right-to-work laws" in the South today on radio station WWRL 1600 in New York at 11 a.m.
Nissan workers will tell their story. UAW President Bob King discusses their campaign and describes the resistance they face from Nissan. Brian Schneck, president of UAW Local 259, describes how the UAW has successfully organized repair shops at auto dealerships to make sure N.Y. metro area workers receive decent wages and good working conditions.
Listen today at 11 a.m. on 1600AM or online at WWW.WWRL1600.com and follow the conversation on Twitter @LaborLines
By Bob King
Many a jaw dropped at the UAW’s support for the U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement. The UAW seeks fair trade and a more equitable global economy that raises the standard of living for workers who have created enormous wealth around the world. The union has a proud history of advocating for fair trade and believes that worker and consumer protections must come first.
The Obama administration is negotiating with Japan and 10 other nations on a Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade agreement. Japan’s inclusion could weaken U.S. labor rights, and harm domestic manufacturing and the American middle class. We must raise our voices now for a trade deal that is fair to American workers, manufacturers and consumers.
Japanese auto companies here routinely deny workers the right to freely choose union representation. These threats start with indoctrination at the time of hire, including implying that the plant will close, will not get new products or new investments if workers chose a union.
Pro-union workers are threatened and harassed. A recent report by Mississippi NAACP President Derrick Johnson and professor Lance Compa, an international labor law scholar, demonstrates that in Canton, Miss., Nissan is not living up to international labor standards. Compa concludes that “Nissan is systematically interfering with the internationally recognized right to form a union.”
The International Labor Organization prohibits companies from imposing pressure, instilling fear and making threats that undermine workers’ right to freedom of association.
Jeff Moore, a Nissan body shop quality technician hired in 2001, said the anti-union intimidation began early. “In the first meetings, managers told us that Nissan is totally nonunion and didn’t want any part of unions, that unions make plants close,” said Moore. “Everything they said about unions was negative, nothing positive. It’s like they were drilling it into our heads, stay away from the union.”
Workers are forced to watch films, hear speeches and attend orchestrated one-on-one meetings with supervisors, all warning of dire consequences that come with union representation.
This must stop.
Nissan and other Japanese automakers must abide by international treaties and must respect workers rights to organize. If these companies do not change their practices now, what incentive will they have after their position is enhanced by the TPP?
Japan must also become a fair trading partner. While Japan doesn’t impose tariffs on U.S. cars, it uses an array of underhanded practices including currency manipulation, regulatory schemes and anti-consumer policies to guarantee that Japan’s auto companies have an absolute monopoly on local markets. Japan’s auto market is the most insular in the developed world. Hyundai-Kia — which is gaining small vehicle market share around the world — spent nearly a decade trying to sell cars in Japan and eventually gave up in frustration.
With more than half the cars sold in the U.S. produced by foreign automakers, our market is open, encouraging competition. But Japan does not play by the same rules.
Japan exports 130 vehicles to the U.S. for every one American vehicle exported there.
The TPP could worsen this problem, potentially phasing out tariffs on Japanese automobiles, parts and light trucks. Removing tariffs would be equivalent to a $1 billion tax break for Japanese automakers, costing at least 100,000 American jobs.
If Japan does not meet these goals, trade with Japan will indeed be free, but it won’t be fair.
Actor/social activist Danny Glover says the UAW was there when South Africans needed help to dismantle apartheid. Now South Africans are there for Nissan workers who want to join a union but cannot because the automakers allows unions everywhere except the United States.
Glover, in a Huffington Post article, says Americans are asking for help from the South African auto union that represents Nissan's production facilities and dealerships. Nissan is happy to cooperate with unions elsewhere -- as well as in its home country of Japan -- but employs a fierce campaign of threats and intimidation in Canton, Miss.
Actor/social activist Danny Glover, speaking outside the Japanese Embassy in South Africa, says workers in Mississippi have fewer rights than their counterparts in South Africa. Photo by Michele Martin.
As an actor/social activist, I never thought I’d see the day when the workers of South Africa have more freedom to join unions than the workers of Mississippi.
Last week, I visited South Africa with a delegation of Mississippi workers, clergy, students and UAW leaders to request support from their auto union, the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa. There’s a special bond between the unions. In the 1980s, the UAW fought against apartheid in South Africa and for workers’ rights. When political prisoner and South African leader Nelson Mandela was freed in 1990, he traveled to Detroit to thank the UAW.
This time, we asked South Africans to help mobilize in support of the right of Americans to organize unions.
In South Africa – as in Japan and most other countries – Nissan workers have collective bargaining rights, and the company and unions work together.
But Nissan has decided it won’t permit American workers to have that same respect. Nissan is treating its American workforce as second-class citizens.
When Nissan workers in Canton, Miss., began to organize, the company reacted with intimidation tactics and implied threats to close the facility. “If you are pro-union, you are anti-Nissan,” they said. The company subjected workers to one-on-one and group anti-union meetings, and has refused to agree to a fair election.
Located near the center of the civil rights movement, Canton is the site of the murders of Medgar Evars, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner. In Canton, civil rights and freedom struggles fill the air and dreams of every man, woman and child. Fifty years later, Canton is at the heart of this struggle for economic justice and the American dream.
Just over a decade ago, taxpayers offered Nissan hundreds of millions of dollars in incentives to locate in Mississippi. Instead of delivering on expectations of full-time jobs, Nissan relies on a large pool of temporary labor for production. These workers earn just over minimum wage, have few benefits and no job security. Nissan claims to never have layoffs, but it lets go of temporary workers at will.
Canton’s Nissan workers support their company and its products, but they have health and safety concerns. They also question why pay and benefits are less in Mississippi than at Nissan’s Tennessee plant. Canton Nissan workers reached out to the UAW because they want to have a voice and a seat at the table to discuss these issues.
When the company moved to suppress this union effort, community leaders rose up. The Mississippi Alliance for Fairness at Nissan is led by the president of the Mississippi Baptist Convention and includes the state NAACP president and other civil rights and church leaders. Student activists from historically black colleges mobilized as the Mississippi Student Justice Alliance.
As someone committed to human dignity and civil rights, I believe their struggle for the right to freely form a union is one of the most important issues of our time. I’m committed for as long as it takes.
As long as powerful corporations such as Nissan use fear and threats to keep workers weak and without a voice, America won’t be a land of opportunity for all. With the help of our brothers and sisters in South Africa, we won’t let that happen.
This opinion piece originally appeared in the June 5, 2013, edition of the Detroit News.
By Bob King
Driving north from Jackson, Miss., on Interstate 55, there's a massive Nissan automotive plant parallel to the highway. It stretches for miles, with nearly 5,000 workers assembling vehicles inside. While the plant is impressive, a growing coalition of Mississippi religious and civic leaders and students are spreading the word across the nation and globally about Nissan's actions behind those walls that aren't so impressive: Intimidating workers and denying them their fundamental right to a fair union election.
Congressman Bennie Thompson called on Mississippi leaders to stand up for Nissan workers who are seeking to organize a union, and last summer, the Mississippi Alliance for Fairness at Nissan (MAFFAN) was formed.
MAFFAN members are very clear in their purpose. They're happy Nissan provides jobs for their community, but they refuse to accept the intimidation campaign Nissan is waging against workers. Nissan has even implied plant closure if workers exercise their right to form a union. But how can this be true when Nissan recognizes unions all over the world — including its home country, Japan?
Dr. Isiac Jackson Jr., who is MAFFAN chair and president of the General Missionary Baptist State Convention of Mississippi, said it best: "We will not tolerate Nissan treating Mississippians as second-class citizens. We will carry the message in Mississippi and to the world insisting that Nissan allow a fair process that allows workers to freely decide on unionization."
Today, Nissan workers and MAFFAN members are at the United Nations in Geneva, taking that message to the world and to consumers at the International Motor Show.
The fair process Jackson wants is more than a good idea, it's a right. The UN's Global Compact states forming a union is a universal human right. MAFFAN leaders are asking Nissan to allow workers a fair union election, where workers are able to hear both sides, free from intimidation and threats. In a fair, democratic election, union supporters will be allowed equal access and time with workers.
Under these common sense principles (which the UAW calls the Principles for Fair Union Elections), workers can truly make an informed decision about unionization.
Workers want a voice in the workplace to end unfair practices, such as Nissan's business practice of employing a significant percentage of temporary workers, called "Nissan Associates." Temporary workers do exactly the same work as regular employees, but for less pay, less job security and limited benefits. They often put their life plans on hold, hoping to become permanent Nissan employees, but it's unlikely they will ever be hired permanently.
Mississippi workers want to form a collaborative relationship with Nissan built on mutual respect, cooperation and trust. They want to be partners in creating quality products at the best value, so both Nissan and workers can prosper. Nissan should welcome that proposition.
I agree with Mississippi leaders: We cannot stand by and allow this foreign company to treat American workers like second-class global citizens. As president of the UAW, I'm encouraged to see local community leaders standing up for workers.
Until they can freely decide whether to have a union, Mississippi workers need support - from MAFFAN, the UAW and the global community.
Bob King is president of the UAW. Thiis opinion piece originally appeared in the March 6, 2013 edition of the Detroit News.
By Roger Bybee
In These Times
(reprinted with permission)
Seizing advantage of a widespread complacency about the suppression of labor rights in the United States, employers have conducted a scorched-earth war against American labor since the 1950s, driving down private-sector unionization to a mere one-fifth of its peak level of 35%. This war essentially spread from its base in the former slave states of the South, where elites maintained tight control over workers through anti-labor "right-to-work" laws that helped to foster a national race to the bottom on wages and to suppress unionization.
But in an innovative appeal, the UAW is boldly asserting that union rights are crucial human rights, driving home this point in a battle to organize as many as 4,500 workers at Nissan’s expanding auto plant in Canton, Miss.
The battle is taking place is in one of the most fervent bastions of anti-unionism. Mississippi has enshrined the anti-labor "right to work" concept with a provision in its constitution, a step led by arch-segregationist Governor Ross Barnett in 1960. With "right-to-work" laws enabling individual employees to forgo paying union dues—even though he or she benefits from the costs of representation and fights for improved wages, benefits and conditions—only 4.3 percent of Mississippi workers belonged to unions in 2012 (with the total protected by union contracts a bit higher, at 5.7 percent).
For its part, Nissan is running the standard high-pressure management campaigns that are unique to the United States among advanced democracies. The tactics include subjecting workers to interrogations about their sympathies, forcing them to attend one-on-one meeting with their supervisors where immense pressure can be applied, and hinting that a pro-union vote could lead to the plant closing.
Meanwhile, workers are chafing over stagnating wages, the emergence of a large, low-paid segment of contract workers, assembly-line "speedups," sharply rising healthcare costs, and the absence of any worker voice in decisions at the Canton plant.
The plant, which is expanding from 3,300 to 4,500 workers, was built with $373.8 million in taxpayer funding from the country's poorest citizens—Mississippi ranks dead last in per-capita income—and a 30-year exemption from local taxes in Canton.
The South is supposedly rocky soil in which to plant the seed of unionism and social justice, especially when the pay is relatively high, topping off at $24 an hour at Nissan. But by emphasizing that union rights are human rights, the UAW has established strong roots among the workforce at Canton, about 80 percent of who are African-American. The union, realizing it must organize surrounding communities as well as the workplace, has built support among community leaders and church leaders around the state.
The struggle for union recognition has become fused with the fight for recognition of workers as full human beings at the Canton plant. Nissan’s efforts to scare workers away from unionization have been all-too reminiscent of the era when African-Americans were controlled through fear and deemed unworthy of the rights afforded to others. The Canton plant is only 26 miles from Jackson, Miss., where state NAACP leader Medgar Evers was assassinated in 1964. Nearby Philadelphia, Miss., is where the bodies of three young civil rights workers—James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, Mickey Schwerner—were discovered in the summer of 1964, after they had been captured, tortured, and killed by the Ku Klux Klan with the collaboration of local law enforcement.
Union supporters find it degrading that Nissan has been unwilling to accept a union in Mississippi when it has worked with unions across the world, from its home in Japan to a union representing primarily black workers in South Africa. Mississippi NAACP President Derrick Johnson, in an interview on MSNBC's "The Ed Show," asked:
"If workers in Brazil can organize, who work for Nissan, if workers in Japan who are Nissan workers -- if workers in South Africa at their Nissan plant are organized and able to collectively bargain, why shouldn't Mississippi workers be able to organize?
"I think it's unfair and unfathomable that a company from outside of the United States come to Mississippi and treat workers as un-American. It is unfortunate that we can sit here today in the state that has a long history of exploiting workers for cheap labor to allow an international company to exploit our workers."
In a phone interview, Johnson told Working In These Times, "We absolutely see the exploitation of cheap labor as the foundation of many of our industries. As slavery was exploitation based on free labor, we see a hand-in-glove connection between civil rights and labor rights. ... Those of us in the civil rights movement must support the right of workers to organize and collectively bargain."
The environment of fear cultivated by Nissan should offend all Americans who value human rights and the right to choose freely, he stated. “We in the NAACP believe that workers should have a voice in the workplace free of intimidation and retaliation. But we’ve got workers who feel intimidated if they support organized labor. The company has been very sophisticated in alluding to the possibility of the plant closing.”
Many African-Americans and white progressives retain the vivid memory of Martin Luther King Jr. merging civil rights with labor issues. On March 18, 1968, just days before his assassination on April 4 while in Memphis supporting striking sanitation workers, King gave a speech outlining the interrelationship between the parallel struggles for rights:
"All labor has worth. … Don’t despair. Nothing worthwhile is gained without sacrifice. The thing for you to do is stay together. … Let it be known everywhere that along with wages and all of the other securities that you are struggling for, you’re also struggling for the right to be organized and be recognized."
That spirit—for the right to full recognition of one's humanity and for the right of free association—is animating the fight for unionization at Nissan in Mississippi.
Full Disclosure: UAW is a sponsor of In These Times.
About this author:
Roger Bybee is a Milwaukee-based freelance writer and University of Illinois visiting professor in Labor Education. Roger's work has appeared in numerous national publications, including Z magazine, Dollars & Sense, The Progressive, Progressive Populist, Huffington Post, The American Prospect, Yes! and Foreign Policy in Focus. More of his work can be found at zcommunications.org/zspace/rogerdbybee.