Saturday, August 5, 2017

Threats, intimidation and use of inmate labor to pull down union signs won the day in Canton, Mississippi, this week but not the war. A solid pro-worker community network promises the battle will go on.

 
(Actor Danny Clover--center-right--addresses Nissan workers at a pro-UAW rally in 2014. To the left with tie and sunglasses is veteran civil rights activist Bob Zellner)

Threats of lost jobs and a closed plant, fear-mongering, intimidation, interrogations of pro-union workers, and even the use of state inmate labor to pull down pro-union signs on roads and highways paid off Thursday and Friday as Nissan workers at the Canton, Mississippi, plant voted against United Auto Workers representation 2,244 to 1,307.

The 64 percent victory for anti-union forces, however, was quickly followed by UAW officials filing a new set of charges against the company for violating legal labor and labor election practices.

“The result of the election was a setback for these workers, the UAW and working Americans everywhere, but in no way should it be considered a defeat,” UAW president Dennis Williams said in response to the vote. “The courageous workers of Nissan who fought tirelessly for union representation alongside community and civil rights leaders should be proud of their efforts to be represented by the UAW.”

The National Labor Relations Board, which has already made previous charges against the company for labor violations, has the option of ordering a new election and also taking the case to federal court and even determining a fair election is impossible under present conditions.

With the ascendancy of the Trump Administration, the NLRB’s attitudes toward unions remain hugely in question, however.

The company and its allies in Mississippi’s political and business establishment formed a powerful phalanx of opposition that included filling the airways, Internet and newspaper pages with anti-union commercials and advertisements, speeches by Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant and state business leaders attacking the union, and a climate of fear within the plant.

“On my way to visit workers and discuss the upcoming vote, I saw someone removing the signs (“Union Yes” signs she’d earlier put up) along the highway exit ramp as a MDOT (Mississippi Department of Transportation) truck blinked idly nearby,” student labor activist Jaz Brisack (one of my stellar students at the University of Mississippi) wrote this week in the web magazine, LikeTheDew. “Looking closer, I noticed that the man yanking up our morning’s work was wearing striped trousers beneath his neon vest.

“The irony of the fact that these inmates’ forced, free labor is being used to silence the support for the beleaguered Nissan workers in their push for unionization is rich and complex. The prisoners are being subjected to the `involuntary servitude’ that the 13th Amendment continues to allow as a `punishment for crime.’”

Those familiar with labor history know that some of the greatest victories have come after heart-breaking losses. Crystal Lee “Norma Rae” Sutton and the members of the Textile Workers’ Union of America had to fight 17 long years before they finally won their victory at the J.P. Stevens plant in Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina, in 1974. Legendary labor organizer Sol Stetin called J.P. Stevens the nation’s “number one labor outlaw.” Textile workers at Pillowtex in Kannapolis, North Carolina, waged a 25-year struggle, losing election after election before finally winning their union battle in 1999.

Critics of unions point to those victories as reasons to reject a union because those plants eventually shut down. NAFTA and other international trade deals were significant culprits in those shutdowns, however, as the textile industry moved wholesale into Asia and its world of cheap labor and sweatshops.

It’s one thing to shut down a textile mill, and quite another to uproot a mile-long, 6,400-worker plant that produces some of the top vehicles in the Nissan line and is a significant factor in the international company’s overall business plan.  Where would it go? Every other Nissan plant outside the U.S. South is already unionized.

A story on the Canton campaign by veteran labor writer David Moberg in In These Times this week was headlined “UAW Vote in Mississippi is a Battle for the Soul of the U.S. Labor Movement”. This echoes a quote I’ve often used in this blog as well as in my book on the Southern labor movement, Covering for the Bosses: Labor and the Southern Press (University Press of Mississippi, 2008): Labor organizing in the South is a “venture into unplowed fields.”

Sidney Hillman, longtime leader of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers, said this in 1946 as organized labor launched its “Operation Dixie” campaign. Mississippi AFL-CIO President Robert Shaffer adds this truth: “It’s a fight everyday of your life in this state.”

The workers in Canton and their advocates, such as labor organizers Richard Bensinger and Sanchioni Butler and student activist Jaz Brisack, worked countless long, hard hours on this campaign. For Bensinger and Butler, that effort stretches back many years. I’ve been its most faithful chronicler since 2005.

The 12 years of this struggle have created a rich and solid community network of workers, preachers, activists, students, organizers, politicians, and supporters that is not going away. These folks are in for the long haul. They’re fighting the good fight, and someday they’re going to win. The road to justice is hard and often treacherous, but the courage and steadfastness and faith that it takes to walk it have already been proven tenfold.  

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Nissan workers in Mississippi begin vote today on whether to join the UAW as state political and business leaders align with the company against the union

 
(A pro-union rally at the Nissan plant in Canton, Mississippi, in 2014)

On the podium in Jackson, Mississippi, stood Mississippi’s leading corporate boosters decrying a possible victory by pro-union workers at Nissan’s plant in nearby Canton in the August 3-4 election to determine whether they can join the United Auto Workers.

At their July 20 press conference, Mississippi Economic Council interim president and CEO Scott Waller, Greater Jackson Chamber Partnership President and CEO Duane O’Neill and others made clear whose side they’re on: the Nissan bosses whose threats and intimidation of workers have led to international condemnation.

On the other side are the workers, Mississippians, 80 percent of them African American, who have little say in work and safety conditions, complain of minimal at best medical treatment for work injuries, and even lost a colleague in 2015, Derick Whiting, who collapsed on the plant floor during working hours.

It’s not just the pro-union workers doing the complaining.

The U. S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration has fined Nissan tens of thousands of dollars for safety violations at the plant. The National Labor Relations Board has charged the company with violating workers’ rights. Nissan was forced to pay Iraq and Afghanistan military veteran Chip Wells $6,500 in disability and back pay after treating him with such hostility for his pro-union views that he had to go on medical leave.

(To the right, the mile-long Nissan plant in Canton, Mississippi)

Joining Waller, a former business editor with the Jackson Clarion-Ledger, and O’Neill on the side of the company bosses is Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant, one of those old-school conservatives who always cry about outside interference in state affairs unless, of course, that outside interference is anti-union. If so, then welcome to Mississippi!

Hypocrisy—another word for lying--is a common phenomenon in union battles.

Witness Carlos Ghosn himself, the CEO of Nissan and partly French-owned Renault who told the French Parliament in February 2016 that Nissan always cooperates with unions. In fact, every single Nissan plant around the world is unionized except the ones in Mississippi and Tennessee. Yet this is the same Carlos Ghosn who told Nissan workers in Smyrna, Tennessee, the day before their union election in 2001 that a union “is not in your best interest.” They got the message.

When a union election was scheduled at the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee, in 2014, U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., initially pledged he’d stay out of it. He lied. He soon joined Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam in an anti-union smear campaign that included secretly making a $300 million state-funded expansion of the plant contingent on keeping the union out.

Poor ol’ Mississippi, so poor it can’t even keep its roads paved and bridges repaired, has thus far spent $1.3 billion on taxpayer subsidies to keep Nissan in Canton. Nissan is a $38.4 billion company. Carlos Ghosn earns $10 million a year and has a net worth of $100 million.

The biggest charge against Nissan workers organizing is that they already earn good wages for Mississippi. Nissan refuses to reveal what it pays its fulltime workers. However, an estimated 2,900 of its 6,400 workers in Canton are temporary or contract workers, with temporary workers earning between $13.46 and $14.21 an hour. Guess what the average central Mississippi production worker earns? The answer: $16.70.

Still, the campaign is not really about money. A decade ago, two years after it began, Nissan-Canton worker Yvette Taylor told a gathering at the Canton United Methodist Church how Nissan threw her into a tangled web of bureaucracy, disrespect, missteps in treatment, and finally dismissal after she injured her hands and knees on the job.

“So many things happened that I just don’t know where to begin,” the mother of 10 said. Finally “I got a letter in the mail saying I was terminated.”

Workers join a union to get respect, to have a collective voice that they can’t have as individuals, to have a say in working conditions. They have a legal right to join a union, yet when they try to exercise that right, they face life-crushing threats.

Veteran labor organizer Rose Turner knows all about this. She helped catfish workers at Delta Pride in Indianola win their historic union election in 1986: “We were at the crossroads. Either we were going to change things or … our kids were going to have the same situation, “ she once said. “I’ve never been afraid of anything because before I do anything, I put God first.”

This column also ran in the Jackson Free Press in Jackson, Mississippi.