Mississippi Yearning

It’s a blessing from God,” heralded a quote prominently displayed amidst the Jackson, Mississippi  Clarion Ledger’s lavish coverage when Nissan opened its ultra-modern assembly plant just outside the small town of Canton, 27 miles west of Jackson. The plant initially symbolized new hope for lifting many Mississippians out of the widespread misery that has long plagued the perennially poorest U.S. state, whose inequality has been increasing faster than anywhere else in the nation over the last decade.

Regular jobs at Nissan now pay about $22 an hour—close enough to the UAW standard of about $28 an hour to be a deterrent against unionization, according to the designs of Nissan strategists. At this pay level, Nissan’s big paychecks were originally perceived as stunningly high in the area near Canton, where the city’s current poverty rate is 31.7 percent, more than double the national rate of 14.3 percent. The new plant was hailed as well worth the impoverished state’s subsidy of $387 million, as conservatively estimated by the Mississippi Development Authority.

But a decade after the Canton plant opened, the sheen has worn off for many workers at the plant that employs about 4,500 workers, 80 percent of whom are African-American. Nissan has generated widespread disenchantment among the workforce at Canton.

The worker discontent has taken the form of a unique organizing drive for representation by the United Auto Workers, based on the notion that labor rights are human rights. This central theme—closely related to the teachings of civil rights giant Martin Luther King—resonates deeply among Nissan workers and a fast-growing group of supporters including clergy, elected officials, and students in Mississippi and across the South. The notion of just treatment for the Nissan workers in Canton—which means allowing them the same right to unionize as Nissan workers in Japan, Brazil, South Africa, and elsewhere—has activated an extraordinary level of support from unionists outside the U.S.

The Mississippi organizing drive has the potential to reinvigorate the U.S. labor movement at a time of widespread defeatism caused by events like the passage of anti-worker legislation in Wisconsin, Indiana and Michigan. Much of its progress can be explained by its reliance on the moral intertwining of labor rights and human rights which deeply connected with Mississippians—especially African Americans—and exerts a worldwide moral appeal.

What’s Lighting The Fire?

Wayne Walker, a 37-year-old African American who has worked at the plant since its opening, explained the growing sentiment behind the union drive: “It’s not all just about the money. It’s about having a collaborative effort.” This is in contrast to the top-down decisions implemented without consultation or even advance notice to the workers.“The price of the vehicle goes up, but your pay and benefits degrade,” said Walker. “That’s why we need a union. The corporations want to sit on the profits and do not share.” Nissan raked in over $3.5 billion in profits in 2012. Matt Thornberry, a 50-year-old white man who is a tool and die technician, resents the authoritarian style of Nissan management and its eagerness to cut worker benefits arbitrarily.” They’re just trying to maximize shareholder profits. The way they’ve taken it away—medical, dental—we’ve lost benefits or are paying more.”

Yolanda Goodin, a 38-year-old production technician who has worked for Nissan for 11 years, recounted how she discovered that her health coverage was gone. “The company will change the benefits, and you only find out when you actually need to have it,” she said. “The doctor’s office called me the day before my surgery at work. I had to pay money up front for surgery.”

Worker Rights Are Human Rights

The pro-union Canton workers are insulted by Nissan’s ferocious antagonism toward union representation at the Mississippi plant. “They have unions all over the world Brazil, Mexico, Australia, Japan, but they won’t allow a union here,” said an exasperated Walker.

Stressing that worker rights are human rights, the Nissan workers’ message that economic justice is inextricably coupled with human rights dignity has touched a responsive nerve in an area that was a blood-soaked crucible of the civil rights movement. This region of Mississippi witnessed some of the most violent resistance encountered by the civil right movement across the South. In 1963, NAACP State President Medgar Evers was assassinated outside his home in Jackson. In the summer of 1964, three young civil rights workers—James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Mickey Schwerner—were abducted through the collaboration of local sheriffs and the KKK, tortured and killed.  Their bodies were found 31 miles east of Canton.

For both the union supporters inside the plant and the considerable base that they have built among the faith community and students, Nissan’s opposition to a union in Canton triggers bone-deep resentment about the “second-class” treatment—a term that comes up again and again—afforded both working-class blacks and whites. As stated by Charles Horton, a leader of the Mississippi Alliance for Fairness at Nissan (MAFAN) and a long-time civil rights activist, “These are the very same issues that we fought about in the 1960s.”

Congressman Bennie Thompson, a MAFAN member, held nothing back in a recent address to union supporters from both the plant and the community, along with a delegation of Brazilian Nissan unionists backing the Canton effort. Thompson emphatically declared: “A month ago, Nissan came by my office in Washington for the first time in 10 years and they brought black people with them. They were bringing people there to tell me how good Nissan has been to them—just like on the plantation. They are trying to counter everything you are saying by saying, ‘See how good we are. See how good we treat our slaves’.”

As seen through the eyes of African Americans—many of them participants in the civil rights movement of the 1960’s most perilous days—and a growing band of white supporters, Nissan’s treatment of its workers brings together the themes of racial equality and economic justice that Martin Luther King more fully articulated near the end of his life as he sought to build a multi-racial movement of the poor and working people built around an Economic Bill of Rights. King expressed his conception of labor rights as fundamental human rights when he told striking Memphis sanitation workers, “You are highlighting the economic issue. You are going beyond purely civil rights to questions of human rights.”

King’s ideas are still powerful today among those supporting the unionization drive. NAACP State President Derrick Johnson laid it out in forceful terms: “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.”

Threat Of Plant Closing

Nissan’s response to its workers has been a long-running attack on their dignity, as seen by UAW supporters. Perhaps most offensive to the workers and their supporters is the incessant comments from managers that the plant will close if the workers vote for UAW representation. Matt Thornberry reported, “Managers will flat out tell you, the plant will close if you get a union.”

The threat of closure tied to unionization is one of the most infuriating elements of Nissan’s conduct to union supporters like the NAACP’s Derrick Johnson, who 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.”  

Highly-profitable Nissan has also offended many with its willingness to extract at least $387 million from the state in subsidies, according to a figure released by the Mississippi Develoment Authority. As Atkins pointed out “At the same time Mississippi was pledging $356 [now estimated at $387 million or more] million to land the Toyota plant in Tupelo, its state legislature failed to build a burn center for the state, forcing burn victims to continued to be transported to Memphis.”

Pay Issues Raise Equality Issue

The workers have cultivated a fast-growing force of allies including clergy across Mississippi, the NAACP, students at historically black colleges and universities and from Brazil and other nations where Nissan operations are located, and unionists at Nissan plants around the world. The community support across Mississippi is remarkably broad and deep in its commitment, spearheaded by MAFAN.

Among those enthusiastically backing the campaign are such universally recognized figures as former Brazilian President Luis Ignacio (“Lula”) da Silva of the Workers Party, himself a former metal worker who traveled to the U.S. to deliver a fiery speech about Nissan to a UAW conference, and movie star Danny Glover—the product of a union family and an outspoken progressive since his college days—who has immersed himself deeply in the campaign, traveling frequently to Mississippi to meet with workers and other areas of the South to motivate black students. Glover and workers from Canton have also made appearances at major auto shows to explain the workers’ case in prominent venues.

With a message that unites labor rights and human rights, the campaign has the potential to inspire public support in the U.S. for unionism as a moral cause for worker dignity and empowerment, much as the United Farmworkers’ grape boycott did in the 1970s.

Unusually strong international support has also been inspired by the Canton workers. The campaign for Canton workers’ rights is rapidly building linkages and gaining the active support of Nissan unionists around the world, with Brazilian union leaders visiting Canton and Brazilian students—among other foreign students—joining in the day-to-day organizing of the Canton workers.

The support for concrete forms of international labor solidarity has long been a dream for unionists dream, but up until now, the slogan has been generally hard to translate into activity that focuses public attention and has more than a limited, symbolic effect. The Canton effort appears to be taking global solidarity to a higher level with much more impact than past attempts to exert cooperation across borders.

Clearly, the campaign for a union at Nissan faces a set of daunting barriers that labor has had little success in overcoming in recent years, given the lack of effective protection of worker rights.

Nelson Lichtenstein, one of the nation’s most respected labor historians and long admired for his advocacy of worker rights, worries about the odds against a union campaign in a “right to work” state like Mississippi, at a high-wage plant in an impoverished state, and amid the present climate of an intensifying war to crush unionism. “I really want them to win, but I think it is an uphill battle.” Some potential barriers include:

Nissan’s propaganda campaign: In line with customary American management practices, Nissan has spurned a demand that union supporters have equal access to address the workers with their viewpoint, signaling that the corporation plans to derive maximum advantage from being able to monopolize workers’ attention during working hours. The company has already started one-sided “captive audience” meetings where unionism is criticized in great detail, intimidating meeting where managers question workers about their attitudes toward the union, and anti-union videos shown incessantly on giant TV screens throughout the plant.

“It’s like holding an election where you get to hear just one candidate,” charged Derrick Johnson, president of the Mississippi NAACP. Managers in the U.S.—unlike CEOs in any other democratic nation—are allowed under U.S. labor to wage massive anti-union campaigns inside work- places without comparable union access.

Fully 90 percent of union organizing drives are greeted with similar high-pressure resistance from management, according to Christopher Martin’s 2003 book on media coverage of labor, Framed! Adopting illegal measures—like the firing of 31,358 pro-union workers in a typical year like 2005, documented by Philip M. Dine in his book State of the Unions—has a huge payoff in intimidating millions of workers. Meanwhile, the potential penalty—back pay to the victims of illegal firing who seek legal assistance—amounts to paying a “parking ticket.”

Right to work law: The pro-union sentiment bubbling up at Canton stands out in a state where just 4.3  percent of Mississippi’s workforce belongs to labor unions, down from 15.4 percent in 1964. The current miniscule rate of unionization largely reflects the cumulative impact of years as a “right to work” state where it was enshrined in the Mississippi State Constitution in 1960 by arch-segregationist Governor Ross Barnett. Under the “right to work” law, workers cannot be required to pay dues to the union, although the union is legally obligated to protect their interests with the same level of effort for the needs of those actually paying dues and supporting the union.

This fundamentally undermines unions as the democratic voice of workers, free of management interference, as intended in the 1935 National Labor Relations Act. Right to work laws both encourage and enable management to engage in selective hiring of workers believed to be anti-union and then once employed, pressuring them to avoid supporting the union in any way.

Anti-union South key to “new normal”: The impact of “right to work” laws helped to set the stage for the present confrontation. With labor thoroughly suppressed in the South, the region became a magnet for Northern employers seeking a low-wage and anti-union environment where they could enjoy total control of their workplaces and subservient state governments. The eventual outcome was that the low labor standards of the South—combined with the large-scale offshoring of U.S. jobs to even lower-wage and more repressive sites like Mexico and China—served to establish a “new normal” for American workers pitted against low-wage competition.

Unionization skidded from a high of representing 35 percent of the U.S. workforce in the mid-1950s to 26.7 percent in 1973, and then plummeted to the present level of 11.2 percent. “Right-to-work” laws have, thus, taken the “race to the bottom” economic strategy to a new low.

The Southern legacy of extreme management control even after slavery was abolished, coupled with rampant racism, took a new shape with the advocacy of “right to work” laws. The drive for the passage of such laws originated in the 1930s with Texas businessperson and white supremacist Vance Muse, who despised the doctrine of human equality represented by unions. “White women and men will be forced into organizations with black Africans they will have to call ‘brother’ or lose their jobs,” he warned. The harshly anti-labor Taft-Hartley Act of 1947 led to the spread of right to work laws throughout the former slave states of the South and then to a number of Western states, before the recent expansions into Indiana and Michigan.

WHITE RELUCTANCE: Mississippi, like the rest of the South, has also been marked by a history of white workers’ racism and a lingering reluctance to work alongside equally-poor black workers in order to lift all Mississippians out of poverty.

One rough indicator is that in 2012, Republican candidate Mitt Romney famously displayed open contempt for the bottom “47  percent” of Americans who are reliant on government programs. This sneering description especially applies to Mississippians, who receive almost $3 worth of federal spending and benefits for every dollar paid in personal and corporate federal taxes and were the recipients of a net gain of $240 billion in federal funding from 1990 to 2009, according to Katherine Newman, co-author of Taxing the Poor: Doing Damage to the Disadvantaged.

Yet, reflecting to some degree white consciousness in Mississippi, 90 percent of white Mississippians voted to elect Romney, with the remaining 10 percent of white Mississippians casting ballots for Barack Obama.

The long-standing reluctance of white workers to seek economic justice alongside black workers has been exacerbated by the ancient but continuing practice of employers dividing workers along racial lines to prevent unionization and other challenges to the structure of elite rule in the South. As late as 1944, “U.S. Steel set up a League to Maintain White Supremacy to spread ‘the white supremacy gospel of Simpson [Jim Simpson, an anti-New Deal politician in Alabama] among the grassroots (that is, its workforce)…to baldly promote racial strife,” wrote Diane McWhorter in her book, Carry Me Home.

Despite this history, there has been a surprising number of white Nissan workers at pro-union events around Canton, reported Joseph Atkins, journalism professor at the University of Mississippi and author of the excellent Covering for the Bosses, which examines the way major Southern media have consistently backed corporate power over worker rights. “The rallies have been predominantly African American, but there have been some whites from the beginning. The whites who ones that come to these rallies may be different from those who don’t show up, but they embrace this campaign as a civil rights issue. I don’t see a wall between white and black.”

THE ELITE: A SOLID PHALANX: The hostility to unions is unremitting among top Mississippi elected officials, CEOs, development “experts,” civic leaders, and part of the clergy. As has been the pattern across the South, this elite has formed what Atkins called a “solid phalanx” against any assertion of worker rights or campaign for economic justice. All of these elite voices will almost certainly be spreading a message that the unionization of Nissan will—if it doesn’t provoke the corporation to close the plant—discourage other major employers from coming into Mississippi. Workers will be under enormous community pressure when the time comes for a vote on union representation, which the UAW envisions only after the global campaign for worker rights at Nissan had influenced public opinion in the U.S. and other nations.

The Canton workers can anticipate a non-stop onslaught from the Fox radio station based in Jackson and the Clarion-Ledger can hardly be expected to be much better in its coverage of the ongoing campaign at Nissan.

Formidable Worker Weapons

Against these barriers, the workers have some formidable weapons of their own. To begin with, the UAW is clearly committed to an expensive and long-term campaign. In contrast to the AFL-CIO’s failed “Operation Dixie” launched after WWII to organize a new crop of unions in the South, the present campaign has jettisoned the fear of progressives, embraced a multi-racial coalition that is being led by blacks, and views the building of local, national and international coalitions as vital. The workers’ campaign has several other important assets including:

A COMPELLING MESSAGE: The campaign of the Canton workers portrays labor rights as crucial human rights, lifting their struggle out of labor’s entrenched habit of describing its goals in narrow, uninspiring economic terms with no effort to appeal to the broader public. Instead, the Canton campaign recaptures the idealism of the civil rights movement of the 1960s by making a moral appeal to the global public to help free the predominantly Mississippi workers from Nissan’s total control.

The campaign’s message has the possibility of helping to win back middle-class liberals who frequently no longer identify labor as a cause worth supporting, which hasn’t occurred since the United Farm Workers’ grape boycott of the 1970s. Since then, labor’s string of continual defeats and declining membership was perceived not as alarming signs of excessive corporate power, but as a reflection that the stodgy labor movement no longer played a useful role in protecting workers as it did in the 1930s and 1940s.

STUDENTS ON THE MOVE: The Canton workers and Danny Glover have ignited a crusade by students at historically African American colleges across the South that is now gathering steam, and will eventually be spreading across the nation. Unlike the anti-sweatshop movement of the past two decades which never focused on a single target because different firms provided sportswear lines for various universities (eg., Nike, Reebok, and other suppliers), there is a growing potential for African American students to concentrate their efforts against a single symbol of economic and racial subjugation in Nissan. The prospect of nation-wide picketing and other actions at Nissan dealerships led by African American college students—who can easily get white students involved—is hardly one that Nissan would welcome. Given the youthful demographic targeted by Nissan, there is a potential for a marketing nightmare, at a minimum.

BREAKTHROUGH AT VW?: Thus far, the UAW has not succeeded in winning union representation at any of the transplants across the South. But the UAW’s chances suddenly improved recently with the intervention of the German metal workers IG Metall, calling upon workers at Volkswagen’s Chattanooga, Tennessee plant to gain a voice through the “works councils” which brings together union and management to make decisions and work out production problems. If VW—feeling pressure from the metal workers in Germany—backs off from anti-union efforts,the UAW may have a strong shot at finally cracking into the transplants and gaining a chance to show what it can provide.

Ultimately, the final outcome at Nissan in Mississippi is impossible to predict. But the workers, the UAW, and their allies seems certain to inject the issues of worker rights, economic justice, and the need for a multi-racial alliance to protect and advance the interests of workers to the South with a force never witnessed before. The campaign of the Canton workers also appears to be developing one of the strongest global labor alliances in an era where labor has thus far failed to match the corporations’ global reach.


Roger Bybee is a Milwaukee-based writer on labor issues and a labor studies instructor for Rutgers and the University of Illinois. Thanks to Joe Atkins, Nelson Lichtenstein, Eric Foner, and Stanley Arowonowitz for their invaluable assistance on this article. He can be reached at winterbybee@gmail.com.