Labor, civil rights leaders share a tradition
NASHVILLE -- The UAW drive to organize workers at Nissan's Mississippi auto plant by focusing on civil rights rather than wages and benefits may be a departure for the union, but it has deep roots.
"The labor movement and the civil rights movement have collaborated in the past," says Dan Cornfield, a labor expert and sociology professor at Vanderbilt University. "Over the past 50 years, civil rights leaders have stepped into the fray when workers have lacked a voice or been mistreated."
Cornfield cites the civil rights movement's 1963 march on Washington, in which UAW President Walter Reuther marched with Martin Luther King Jr., and King's campaign to help organize sanitation workers in Memphis in 1968, when he was killed.
"When it comes to the civil rights movement in the South, there's a lot of history that has not been forgotten," says Cornfield, who edits Work & Occupations, an academic journal on labor studies. "It's possible that people in Mississippi could look at auto workers who don't have a voice on things like assembly line speed and their health care benefits, and interpret that as workers not being treated with dignity."
UAW organizers are enlisting seasoned civil rights activists, the NAACP and students from black colleges to press Nissan to open its doors and give the union access to speak with the Canton, Miss., plant's 4,000 hourly employees.
About 70 percent of the work force is African American.
The plant builds the Altima, Sentra, Armada, Titan, Frontier, Xterra and NV commercial van, and will add the Murano next year.
Cornfield declined to speculate on whether the UAW would be successful in organizing the plant's workers.
He said that labor organizing in general has been moving closer to the global human rights movement, tying its own message to issues involving poverty, immigration and discrimination.
"Human rights, immigration rights, labor rights," he says, "they're all closely aligned for many people."
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