UAW takes a civil rights tone at Nissan
Organizers cite grand tradition of pressing for workplace justice
Photo credit: JOE VERMILLION, UAW
Union organizers believe they can rally support for the UAW at Nissan's Mississippi auto plant by raising an issue that stirred people in that state half a century ago: civil rights.
The UAW has been unsuccessful for decades trying to recruit workers at non-Detroit 3 automakers in the United States, such as Nissan, Honda and Mercedes-Benz. This time, instead of focusing on the usual factory hot buttons of wages, work rules, health care and retirement, the union is conducting a grass-roots campaign to link union support with the decades-long social struggle of African Americans in the deep South.
"I have been involved in this struggle as a Mississippian, in Mississippi, for a long time," says the Rev. Isiac Jackson Jr., 66, pastor of the Liberty Missionary Baptist Church in Canton, a civil rights activist in the 1960s who is now a leader of the effort to organize Nissan.
"I was there when Dr. King was tear-gassed," Jackson says, referring to civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. "I was there. It's the same struggle."
The UAW organizers are working in coordination with the NAACP in Mississippi. And they have enlisted students from historically black colleges in the South, including Tougaloo College in nearby Jackson, Miss.
The Rev. Isiac Jackson says of the organizing effort: “It’s about civil rights — the right to choose.”
Photo credit: JOE VERMILLION, UAW
The entire Nissan campaign is being conducted under an umbrella called the Mississippi Alliance for Fairness at Nissan, which according to its press materials is "an organization representing clergy, elected officials, civil rights activists and students in Mississippi, the Mississippi Student Justice Alliance, actor and activist Danny Glover, and other community leaders."
At the center of the issue is a nonunion auto plant that seems to be getting larger by the month.
Nissan's Canton plant, which employs about 4,000 hourly workers, opened in 2003 and is expanding its work force and product portfolio.
Last month the company said it would move production of the Murano crossover to Canton from Japan. By 2014, Nissan expects to have eight models in production at Canton, making it one of the company's most important global factories.
Workers earn about $24 an hour, compared with about $28 an hour at the Detroit 3. Benefits are not included in either figure.
The plant work force is 70 percent African-American, according to previous statements made by the company.
Union organizers say they are at a disadvantage in appealing to Nissan's work force because they are not allowed into the plant, while the company has access to its workers all day. Morris Mock, a Canton paint shop worker and union organizer, says the union simply wants equal time to meet with Nissan workers to make its case for a union.
"This is not a plantation," Mock says of the auto plant, making an allusion to Mississippi's antebellum history of cotton plantations and slaves. "We expect the same exact treatment as everybody else in being able to have our voice heard. Let us tell our side. It's our global right to organize."
David Reuter, Nissan Americas head of corporate communications, says the automaker maintains a strict no-solicitation policy on its property, which also prevents religious groups and political parties from soliciting workers.
"In the 32 years Nissan has been operating in the United States, we have maintained a very exemplary record of acting ethically, honestly and transparently with our employees," Reuter said in response to the assertion that Nissan is denying workers their civil rights.
Canton has never been the object of a UAW drive in the past, although the union has had a small office across the street from the Nissan factory for two years. Other than casually soliciting employee interest in union representation, which goes on commonly at nonunion auto plants, the UAW has declared organizing drives at only a few other non-Detroit 3 plants in the past 25 years, including the Mercedes-Benz plant in Vance,. Ala., and Toyota's large plant in Georgetown, Ky.
Only twice has the UAW pursued the organizing efforts all the way to a federally monitored employee vote on representation at a non-Detroit 3 auto plant. Both of those votes occurred at Nissan's factory in Smyrna, Tenn., and the union was rejected by a large margin both times -- the second time under the organizing direction of Bob King, who now is UAW president.
Last month the union campaign presented its case to students on the Tougaloo College campus, where labor organizers drew an audience with the help of Glover. A spokeswoman for the alliance said the effort will reach out to other college students elsewhere in the South in hopes of influencing young people who might be planning a vehicle purchase.
The campaign mainly hopes to bring public pressure to bear on Nissan to give the union access to workers, says Jackson.
"If you want to understand the hook in this movement, money is not the issue," he says. "It's about rights -- the right to chose."
You can reach Lindsay Chappell at email@example.com.