In “Right-to-Work” Mississippi, workers at a Nissan Plant are talking about organizing despite the best efforts of local politicians and factory owners to demonize unions. The region’s perspective on organized labor is best summed up by Jay Moon, president and CEO of the Mississippi Manufacturers Association, who recently said of the Nissan situation:
“We don’t believe a union is needed up there. We don’t believe the union would provide any benefits that the workers don’t have already.”
The plant’s workers beg to differ. Ignoring constant warnings from management that unionizing would cause a situation in which all workers would be fired and replaced by temps, the battle to organize is moving on and gaining support along the way.
Michael Carter, one of those leading the charge, recently explained where things went wrong at the Nissan plant and why so many of his colleagues now see a union as the only way to have their voice heard by management:
Maybe it started with the company’s changes in his health-care benefits. “They said too many people were going to the emergency room,” he says.
He soon found his premiums going up and his deductible jump from zero to $2,500. “I had a spot on my leg, and the doctor wanted surgery in case it was cancer,” Carter says. “I filed for insurance, and they didn’t pay any of the bill. They said, `You haven’t made your deductible.’ It was $800. I thought they’d pay some of it.”
As for Carter’s wages, they’re good, but he hasn’t had a raise in years—he feels he’s “topped out” at $23 an hour—and there’s little or no chance for promotion.
Meanwhile, the line speed has increased on the shop floor, with production requirements going up even at times when the workweek is cut back. “We asked, why did it go up if we cut back to four days? They didn’t really give us an answer,” he says.
For Carter and his fellow workers, answers are what is needed. They feel a lack of communication is the central cause of most employee concern. When it comes to organizing, however, management has a very clear message:
What he and other workers do get from management, he says, is a lot of talk about how horrible unions are. Whether it’s focus meetings or one-on-one sessions, the message is always the same: “Ain’t nothing good about a union.”
Carter has a hard time digesting that message. “I say that can’t be true. There’s good in anything.”
While southern politicians continue to wave the anti-union, “Right-to-Work” flag, the UAW sees the Canton, MS plant as an opportunity to get its foot in the door in the South. Their message is simple: Allow these workers to have a fair election or we will bring this campaign to a broader audience:
These testimonies from the two sides of the union question at the Nissan plant in Canton are early volleys in what promises to be a landmark battle, a high-stakes squaring off that could become global in scope.
For the UAW, Canton is key to a $60 million plan to establish its footprint in the South and beyond. At the center of the union’s strategy is to have Nissan agree to a set of “Fair Election Principles” that allow both sides equal time in presenting their case to workers. Union leaders stress they respect Nissan and want the company to be financially successful.
However, if Nissan refuses to engage in a “fair election”—and CEO Carlos Ghosn’s long record of intense antagonism to U.S. unions indicates it most certainly will—the UAW will take its case to a world stage. UAW officials have talked of a consumer boycott on a scale not seen since the grape boycott that established Cesar Chavez’s United Farmer Workers in the late 1960s. Expect workers and community activists carrying banners and passing out leaflets at Nissan dealerships across the land. The Canton story will even be heard at global auto shows.
This is not the first attempt to organize Nissan plants in the south. In 2007, workers unsuccessfully tried similar actions.
Back in 2007, James Fisher, Yvette Taylor and Stanley Martin challenged the Camelot image of one of Mississippi’s premier manufacturers at meetings in Canton and Jackson. They told of terminations for job-related injuries, intimidation and anti-union propaganda. Workers at Nissan’s Smyrna plant also came to testify to humiliations and a caustic disregard for work-related injuries and illnesses.
“Nissan’s got this big halo, this rainbow over them,” Fisher said at the time. “It’s all on the outside. We have to fight tooth and nail on the inside. They can do what they want to on the inside. It’s always somebody trying to cut somebody’s throat.”
Read the entire, long-form story about this in The Jackson Free Press.