1984’s Big Brother alive at Nissan auto plant in Mississippi

A report by the Mississippi NAACP and a prominent international labor attorney shows anti-union tactics used by Nissan management in Canton, Mississippi to be eerily similar to those of the notorious Big Brother, the fictional dictator of George Orwell’s novel 1984.

According to Choosing Rights by Derrick Johnson, president of the Mississippi NAACP, and Lance Compa, an international labor law scholar at Cornell University, “Nissan (at the Canton plant) has sustained a campaign of psychological pressure against organizing rights.”

The company’s anti-union campaign consists of surveillance and intimidation of union supporters, a ubiquitous set of television monitors that broadcast pro-company messages, which from time to time include subtle and not so subtle anti-union messages, and retaliation against and isolation of union supporters. On company premises, management has censored the pro-union message while allowing only anti-union propaganda to be presented in company sponsored meetings.

The report goes on to say that, Nissan also implies that if workers choose to become union members the plant will be shut down and work moved elsewhere.

These tactics, say the report, violate internationally recognized labor standards that Nissan claims to support and practice

The findings of the report are based on extensive interviews with Nissan workers. The UAW commissioned the report, but UAW staff and officials were not present at any of the interviews.

The authors offered Nissan a chance to reply to the charges against it and published those replies in their report.

While pay and benefits at Nissan’s Canton plant exceed those of most industrial jobs in Mississippi, workers have a number of concerns that led some to contact the UAW and ask for its help in forming a union.

Some of these concerns include, on-the-job favoritism, health and safety problems, lack of input about how to improve their jobs and production, and the company’s tendency to blame workers unfairly for product defects.

Nissan at Canton also relies heavily on temporary workers who make $12 an hour, well below the rate of full-time workers.

Perhaps most galling is the fact that workers in Canton make $2 an hour less than Nissan workers in Smyrna, Tennessee.

Pro-union workers hoped to address these collective concerns through collective efforts, but Nissan has tried to thwart their efforts.

One way that Nissan tries to blunt organizing is by broadcasting an anti-union message on television monitors throughout the plant.

“Every negative thing about Detroit or the UAW goes on the monitor,” said Rafael Martinez in an interview with the authors. “They want to make us think that Chevy is in trouble, and it’s all because of the UAW. Everything is negativity, negativity, negativity. They cherry-pick the news they want to present. Nothing is on there when UAW members get a bonus or a UAW plant adds a shift.”

These messages are presented in continuous loops that makes them inescapable.

Nissan also holds captive audience meetings where attendance is required. At these meetings only anti-union messages are allowed.

“I was one of the people who called the UAW in 2004,” said Rosalind Essex to the interviewers. “A bunch of us were upset about the way some things were going on in the plant, the way they treated people. After union reps came and talked with some of us, the company set up roundtable meetings for everybody. We had to go to these meetings.”

“My section’s roundtable was during the morning shift.” said Jeff Moore. “First the plant manager showed a slide show on how the UAW messed up the auto industry, and if they come here they will mess up Nissan. Then the department manager talked about UAW plants downsizing while Nissan is putting new vehicles into Canton, like if we have a union they will pull out production. It was completely biased.”

Workers also say that Nissan has taken note of who the union supporters are and keeps track of them.

“Whenever anybody asked a question (at the roundtable meeting), the HR rep took notes,” Moore said. “It was obvious they were keeping track of people’s ideas about the union. A lot of people had questions but they didn’t ask because they were afraid the company would retaliate.”

Nissan’s actions, write Johnson and Compa, violate Principle 3 of the United Nation’s Global Compact, a set of principles that socially responsible businesses agree to abide by and to which Nissan purports to adhere.

Principle 3 states that “businesses should uphold the freedom of association and the effective recognition of the right to collective bargaining.”

Union supporters at Canton aren’t asking for anything more than what Nissan claims to stand for. They want an open and honest discussion about the benefits of union membership and the right to choose whether to belong to a union without interference from the company. In short, they want fairness at Nissan.

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