In October, a delegation of union leaders from South Africa visited Mississippi and Tennessee, where they met with workers, students, community leaders, and public officials to hear about how Nissan responded when U.S. workers launched an effort to organize a union. The group leafleted at the Canton plant inviting the workers to meet them. At the meeting, workers shared stories of the company’s intimidation tactics.
The South Africans were incredulous when they heard what U.S. workers have encountered from Nissan: characterizing the union as a bad thing for workers and wanting only money; saying that unions cause companies to close; implying that workers will lose their jobs if they form a union. “Why is Nissan taking such a negative, hostile attitude towards the workers and their desire to have a union?” asked Ndlovu. “I don’t understand why U.S. workers are treated differently from Nissan workers in other countries.”
“You are entitled to representation just like every other nation’s Nissan workers,” said auto union President Cedric Gina. “In the future, when the Nissan corporate leaders invite us to meetings, we will raise the issue of why the company is interfering with its American workers’ right to form a union. We will demand that the next meeting be held in Mississippi or Tennessee.”
NUMSA National Treasurer Mphumzi Maqungo, who is employed by GM, explained to the U.S. Nissan workers how in 2010 the union won during their negotiations a ban on the use of labor brokers (similar to the temporary agencies used by Nissan in the U.S.). Nissan workers applauded loudly when hearing about this.
NUMSA steward Jacob Mashego explained how Nissan respects the union structure in South Africa, which includes 13 shop stewards paid for by Nissan and regular work time meetings in the plant with workers, their union leaders and management.
The big question on the minds of the South Africans was: why does Nissan imply that it will remove work from factories in the U.S. if workers exercise their right to form a union? Certain political officials repeat over and over that it’s the absence of unions that allows them to attract new businesses. While Nissan has not contradicted this, the company opens up factories around the world with full respect for, and the expectation of working with, unionized workforces. Why are Southern U.S. workers second-class global citizens?
The South Africans took note of the irony that the people and the unions of the United States stood up for the South African people when they were suffering under the racist apartheid regime. The United Auto Workers union was a lead actor in the international struggle to free Nelson Mandela and to end the racist policies. Now, the people of South Africa can freely join unions while U.S. workers face threats of losing their jobs.
Derrick Johnson, President of the Mississippi NAACP, explained that the civil rights movement has always struggled against economic injustice and the suppression of rights, and the struggle for union rights is part of that fight. He told our South African guests that employers have long taken advantage of workers the U.S. South.
The South African delegation included the President of NUMSA, Cedric Gina; Mphumzi Maqungo, National Treasurer; Jacob Mashego, Nissan union steward; Witness Ndlovu, Nissan union steward; Nkululeko Beauchamp, Nissan Union steward; and Skhumbuzo Phakathi, NUMSA International Affairs Officer.
The South Africans pledged their support and solidarity. “You will win this fight,” said President Gina. “Forward ever. Backward never. We promise that we will go back to South Africa and engage in solidarity actions and do everything we can to get Nissan to respect your right to have a union.”
Our South African friends have already helped us enormously, lifting us up with their warmth, their strength, their beautiful spirits, and their commitment to the dignity of all human beings, forged through long, harrowing struggle.