Support from Bernie Sanders and Danny Glover helped provide momentum to a campaign ‘about overcoming the effects of slavery’
“I’ve never seen a labor campaign of this size,” says the civil rights movement veteran Frank Figgers. “This is a historic struggle about overcoming the effects of slavery in Mississippi.”
Figgers is attending a meeting of 100 Nissan workers at a church preparing for the last push ahead of a historic union election for 4,000 Nissan workers set to take place on 2-3 August in Canton, Mississippi.
The vote is the culmination of 14-year campaign to organize the Nissan plant, 80% of whose employees are African American, and a major test for unions who have struggled to make inroads in the southern states as manufacturing jobs have migrated south.
For years, many workers have doubted that they would get enough support to be able to call for an election at all. But after more than 5,000 people, including the former presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders and the actor Danny Glover, took part in the “March on Mississippi” in support of unionization at Nissan in the spring, the drive took on a new sense of momentum. If the union vote is successful, it would be the largest union victory in Mississippi in more than a generation. A win in Canton would send a bolt of energy into the growing labor movement across the south.
However, the workers in Canton face staunch opposition from Nissan and a long history of defeats for union votes in the south at plants including Boeing in Charleston, South Carolina, earlier this year, and at Volkswagen in Chattanooga, Tennessee, in 2014. (The United Automobile Workers (UAW) later won an election for a much smaller unit of 160 maintenance workers.)
To show the workers that they are not alone, the UAW, in conjunction with the NAACP, community groups, and over 300 Mississippi clergy members, have formed a community campaign under the banner of the Mississippi Alliance for Fairness at Nissan, which Figgers co-chairs.
Nissan workers began meeting at a nearby church to discuss low wages and workplace safety in 2005. Sheila Wilson, a Nissan worker, says those early days weren’t easy. Many members were scared, but she remained determined in her desire to push for a union.
“I never had any fear because if I let fear take over, I knew I would never get anything done,” says Wilson, the daughter of veteran civil rights activists. “If I had fear, I would never be where I am today.”
Eventually, after workers formed an organizing committee, the UAW decided to send down organizers to help assist them. At first, it was difficult to persuade workers to get on board, but activists, many of whom were also children of veteran activists, tried to stay positive.
“You have to keep an open mind and stay humbled,” says Wilson. “You can’t be arrogant and you can’t be timid. You have to be ready to let know them know how you felt about it. Let them know that they are not standing by themselves. Let them know that I am going to stick with you to the end.”
Chip Wells, a native of Columbus, Mississippi, has worked at Nissan for 12 years, but it took him nearly seven years to get involved in the campaign. He said that he was always curious about unions, but afraid of getting involved in the effort out of fear of retaliation.
Eventually, a co-worker persuaded him to attend his first union meeting at a nearby church. “I’ll never forget it. I was scared. It was hush-hush on our line – nobody talked [about the union],” says Wells. “I was scared that someone is gonna see me going over there and tell the supervisor, or HR, and I would be marked, dealt with accordingly.”
“Nothing happened, though,” says Wells. “Like they say at the meetings, the more you know about something, the more you get involved in something, and the more courageous you become.”
For the last five years, Wells and his co-worker have kept showing up to those meetings despite the long odds that faced them. While the union had been able to win a significant amount of support in the plant, supporters never had been able to get close to a majority until this year.
This January, all the core organizers decided it was time to launch an all-out blitz for support at the plant. They quickly began planning for a huge “March on Mississippi” to demonstrate community support for Nissan workers.
Initially, the UAW expected only 1,000 people to show up; instead, more than 5,000 activists from all over the south arrived. In the month that followed the march, the UAW signed up 386 new members.
“I think that opened the doors for us really. A lot of people were scared,” says Jeff Moore. “When they saw a politician like Bernie Sanders down there, people thought that ‘if he can come and speak up for me, then we know people got our back’.”
Sensing a major breakthrough, pro-union activists began working around the clock to rally support. “Every night, we just stand at the turnstile and talk to people in the parking lot all night long. Sometimes we would leave the gate at 1 or 2am,” says Moore. “A lot of families have changed. It’s been a big sacrifice, but it’s worth it.”
Earlier this month, the workers decided to file for a union election for approximately 4,000 hourly maintenance and production employees at the plant.
Since then, Nissan has bitterly fought the drive.
“The 6,400 Canton employees are a key part of the Nissan family, and they enjoy good, stable, safe jobs with some of the best wages and benefits in Mississippi,” wrote the Nissan spokesperson Parul Bajaj in an email to the Guardian. “Given the UAW’s history, including strikes, layoffs, and plant closures at UAW-represented plants, it is clear that their presence in Canton could impact the global competitiveness of the plant.”
Nissan has been running videos throughout the plant warning workers against the dangers of the union and pushed workers to attend meetings raising concerns about unionizing.
“They tell us that we are gonna lose our benefits, it’s put a lot of fear into our co-workers,” says Betty Jones, a 12-year Nissan employee.
“It looks like the company is being extremely desperate because they will say and do anything,” laughs Nissan worker Morris Mock. “I had a manager tell me: ‘Don’t stand in the same place too long or they are gonna get the wrong idea.’”
Nissan has previously run into trouble in its effort to combat the UAW. In 2015, the National Labor Relations Board charged Nissan and its temporary employee agency provider, Kelly Services, with violating workers’ rights. Although Nissan has said it is defending itself against the charge, the NLRB added new complaints against Nissan and Kelly Services in April this year for threatening to close the plant if workers unionized. The NLRB also charged the company with breaking labor law by having security personnel perform unnecessary security stops on union members.
Nissan has repeatedly denied wrongdoing and insisted that it has the right to campaign against the union.
“Under US law, we have the right to provide employees with all the facts to ensure that they make the best decision for them and the Canton community,” said Bajaj, the Nissan spokeswoman, in a statement. “We intend to exercise that right.”
Workers at the plant say that Nissan’s campaign is falling on deaf ears, and in the closing days of the campaign they are feeling optimistic that they can pull off the impossible in Canton – and maybe light the spark of a movement to organize across the south.
“Going back to the civil rights movement, we always know that Mississippians have done the things that people say couldn’t be done, and have done the thing that people have never done before,” says Figgers. “We are at that point at Nissan.”
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