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Nissan Workers in Canton, Mississippi Fight for Power on the Job

Amy Traub

Workers’ rights are civil rights.

In almost every Nissan auto plant across the world, workers are represented by a union. One exception is the facility in Canton, Mississippi, where Nissan management is bitterly opposing efforts by its predominantly African-American employees to join the United Auto Workers union. The campaign will culminate next week, when approximately 3,500 Nissan employees in Canton will vote on union representation.

Affirming that “workers’ rights are civil rights,” employees at the Canton plant maintain that the company has failed to respect their dignity. Despite the lucrative tax incentives offered to lure Nissan to Canton, the company has staffed its plant with large numbers of temporary workers who lack job security and receive less pay and benefits than Nissan’s regular employees doing the same work. Even when former contract workers have been hired by the company directly, they remain on a lower pay scale, producing an unfair, two-tiered system.

Workers also raise concerns about safety and the ability to speak up about unsafe conditions without fear of retaliation. The Nissan plant in Canton has been cited by OSHA for serious violations of workplace safety rules.

With the support of the NAACP and other civil rights organizations, as well as local clergy and community groups, Congressman Benny Thompson, Senator Bernie Sanders, and actor Danny Glover, workers are standing up against what they say is a campaign of intimidation by management aimed at scaring them away from joining the union. Workers report being forced to attend anti-union meetings with supervisors, the harassment of pro-union employees, and illegal threats to close the plant if workers make the decision to join the union. The company denies allegations of illegal behavior. Union activists at the plant, many the children of civil rights activists, look to the local black community’s long history of standing up to oppression and intimidation.

Throughout the last presidential campaign, manufacturing jobs were held up as the cornerstone of American prosperity. Candidate Donald Trump claimed that the middle class would flourish under new trade deals aimed at reclaiming “stolen” factory jobs. Yet this analysis overlooks why American manufacturing jobs historically provided the type of stable, well-paid employment that helped to build the American middle class: not because of a magic ingredient inherent in manufacturing work, but because industrial workers built power through unions to demand and win a better deal on the job. The benefits of union membership have been especially significant for black workers, reducing racial wage disparities.

Today, in manufacturing as elsewhere, workers’ rights and power to negotiate are under attack. The National Employment Law Project documents declining pay in manufacturing, pointing out that although manufacturing workers once earned a wage significantly higher than the U.S. average, by 2013 the average factory worker made 7.7 percent below the median wage for all occupations, with a particularly steep wage decline in the automotive sector. The use of temporary workers, like those at Nissan’s Canton plant, have helped to accelerate the decline in pay and job quality.

In fact, lower wages and a compliant workforce are major factors drawing manufacturers like Nissan to a largely non-union state like Mississippi. Next week’s vote will help to determine whether manufacturing workers can reverse the downward trend in wages, power and respect.

Veteran labor reporter Mike Elk makes the case that “if the union vote is successful, it would be the largest union victory in Mississippi in more than a generation. A win in Canton would send a bolt of energy into the growing labor movement across the south.”