Mississippi auto workers: worker rights are civil rights

Hundreds of auto workers and their supporters gathered this week at an auditorium at Tougaloo College in Jackson, Mississippi to demonstrate their support for a fair union election at the Nissan auto plant in Canton, Mississippi. Speakers at the meeting said that union membership is a civil right and that Nissan management has intimidated union supporters and unlawfully interfered with their right to form a union and bargain collectively.

Before the meeting began, union supporters spoke to Ed Schultz of MSNBC’s The Ed Show to explain the issues at stake. Derrick Johnson, president of the Mississippi NAACP, told Schultz that worker rights have always been a civil rights issue.

“The struggle we had to abolish slavery was about workers’ rights,” Johnson said. “The struggle in the 60s was about the right of workers being able to organize. Dr. King was assassinated as he was organizing workers in Memphis who wanted the right to have a voice as sanitation workers. So we see worker rights on the same playing field as voting rights, civil rights; it is about human dignity.”

Betty Jones, a Nissan autoworker and union supporter, told Schultz that union supporters at the plant aren’t anti-Nissan as David Reuter, vice-president of corporate communications for Nissan, told Schultz earlier; we just want to have a voice in company decisions that affect our lives. “We’re not here to bash Nissan,” Jones said. “We have ideas to make a better product (and we want to be heard.)”

Jones, an activist in the United Autoworkers organizing committee at the Canton plant, said that workers would also like to have a voice in addressing on-the-job health and safety issues.

Johnson said that scheduling problems make life difficult for workers on and off the job. “Workers at Nissan should be able to know when they come to work on Monday morning that they should be able to predict whether they’re going to be able to work three hours that day or 12 hours; whether they’re going to work a seven-day week or a five-day week,” Johnson said. “How can workers be expected to raise a family and have a quality of life if a company like Nissan doesn’t respect them as human beings.”

Speaking at the Tougaloo meeting, Reverend Dr. Isiac Jackson, Jr., chair of the Mississippi Alliance for Fairness at Nissan (MAFFAN),  said that Nissan has come to rely too heavily on permatemps, long-term temporary workers hired through an employment agency.

Permatemps work side-by-side with full-time Nissan workers but are paid less and have few if any benefits. Many of these permatemps have worked at the plant for more than a year.

When asked by the Associated Press how many of the 5,200 workers at the Canton plant are permatemps, Reuter refused to say, but speakers at the Tougaloo meeting said that the number of permatemps is large and growing.

Union supporters think that permatemps are exploited and deserve equal pay for equal work. The use of permatemps also threatens wages, benefits, and job security of the full-time workers.

These and other problems caused hundreds of workers at Canton plant to support unionization.

The company has said that it would remain neutral in a union organizing campaign, but has held a series of meetings with an anti-union message.

According to union supporters, company representatives at these meetings imply that workers could lose their jobs or have their hours cut back if they vote in a union.

Union supporters also say that supervisors and managers during private conversations with workers speak more frankly about the possibility of plant closures and the loss of work.

The company’s anti-union campaign caused religious, civil rights, student, and community leaders to stand up for the workers’ right to have a fair election at Nissan. They formed MAFFAN, which last month held a press conference at a Detroit auto show to publicize the campaign for a fair election. The group is planning similar events at auto shows in Chicago in February and Atalanta in March.

“We’re taking the story of Nissan throughout the state of Mississippi, the United States and the world,” said Reverend Jackson, president of the General Missionary Baptist State Convention of Mississippi. “We’ve told our community about Nissan’s threats and intimidation of workers and how they treat their Mississippi workers like second-class global citizens. It’s time the rest of Mississippi, the United States and the world knew how this global company is treating our fellow citizens who are simply asking for fair treatment and the right to vote on organizing without a fear campaign from the company.”

Johnson told Schultz that Nissan bargains collectively with unions in Brazil, South Africa, Japan, and other countries, but won’t afford the same rights to workers in Mississippi.

Two leaders from the labor movement in Brazil were at the Tougaloo meeting to support the Canton workers: Vagner Freitas de Moraes, president of CUT, the largest trade union federation in Brazil, and Joao Cayres, of CNM/CUT, the union representing Brazilian Nissan workers.

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2 thoughts on “Mississippi auto workers: worker rights are civil rights

  1. Pingback: Left Labor Reporter

  2. Pingback: Why the far-right fears change in Chattanooga | The Great Debate

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