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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Union campaign at Nissan plant gets community support

Betty Jones, Lee Ruffin, Morris Mock, Michael Carter, and many other workers at the Nissan auto plant in Canton, Mississippi  want to organize a union, so that they can have a voice on the job. Nissan management has mounted an aggressive campaign to keep workers from organizing a union.

Nissan’s tactics have sparked outrage not only among pro-union workers at the plant but among community leaders in Canton, located about 30 miles north of Jackson, and in the rest of the state. The Mississippi Alliance for Fairness at Nissan (MAFFN), whose members are religious, civil rights, political, and student leaders, recently traveled to the North American International Auto Show in Detroit where they held a press conference to demand that Nissan stop its harassment of pro-union workers and allow a fair union election to take place.

 “When workers at Nissan began to organize a union, Nissan responded with implied threats that they would leave Mississippi if workers unionized,” said Reverend R. Isiac Jackson, Jr., president of the General Missionary Baptist State Convention of Mississippi and MAFFN chair. “While we welcome the presence of foreign-owned companies like Nissan in Mississippi, we will not tolerate a company treating Mississippians as second class citizens. The Mississippi Alliance for Fairness at Nissan will carry the message in Mississippi, in Detroit and everywhere insisting that Nissan allow a fair process that allows workers to freely decide on unionization.”

Morris Mock, a technician at the Canton plant, described some of the company’s tactics.

“Since Nissan opened their plant, they have been campaigning to keep out a union,” Mock said “The company does individual anti-union talks with workers including interrogating employees about their views on the union; they have shown anti-union videos; have held anti-union groups meetings; individually warned key leaders of our effort not to be involved; created a climate of fear by implying the plant will close; and demonized the UAW as a horrible organization.”

Workers like Mock, Jones, Ruffin, and Carter would like to join the United Autoworkers (UAW) so that they can collectively address problems on their job.

For example, they are concerned that Nissan relies heavily on so-called temporary workers to do the same work as permanent Nissan workers.

Lee Ruffin works side-by-side with temporary workers who often are long-term employees but are paid less, have fewer benefits, and no job security.

Ruffin thinks that workers who do the same work should receive the same pay and benefits and have the same level of job security.

Ruffin and other Nissan workers have noticed that Nissan is filling many of its new production job openings with temporary workers, which makes the permanent workers uneasy about their own job security and their ability to protect their pay and benefit package.

Having a union at the plant would give workers a voice to address this problem.

Union supporters want a say in plant safety, working conditions, pay, and benefits, and they want input into how to improve plant processes and products.

One of the workers’ pet peeves is that Nissan pays auto workers at its Smyrna, Tennessee plant more money even though they do the same work.

Derrick Johnson, Mississippi NAACP president and member of MAFFN, said that joining a union to have a voice on the job is a civil and human right. “The NAACP and labor unions have long history of collaboration,” said Johnson. “The NAACP fully supports (the Nissan) campaign, and believes the campaign is a strong example of that partnership.”

Johnson also said that Nissan has a double standard when it comes to dealing with unions in the US. It recognizes and bargains with unions in Japan, South Korea, Australia, Mexico, Russia, Spain, and the UK.

The Mississippi Student Justice Alliance (MSJA) has also joined the campaign to support the Canton Nissan workers.

“When one of richest auto companies comes to Mississippi and starts paying new production hires half of what regular workers make, and makes them temporary workers, that is unacceptable to youth,” said Tyson Jackson, an MSJA leader . “Union busting is unacceptable to us. This is like Freedom Summer because this is a civil rights fight. The right to organize a union free of fear and intimidation is a basic civil and human right.”

To make a union representation election at fair, MAFFN, MSJA, and the pro-union workers at the plant want Nissan to allow union supporters equal time during the anti-union meetings that the company holds during work hours. Nissan, so far, has refused.

“We need equal time to hear the union’s side of whether we should have a union at Nissan,” said Carter. “That has been our demand to Nissan. If you can show an anti-union movie for 15 minutes on company time then we, the union supporters, should be given 15 minutes on company  time.”