The United Automobile Workers union and its allies in the labor and civil-rights movements have been organizing for years to get a union at the sprawling Nissan Motor Company vehicle assembly facility in Canton, Mississippi. But most Americans became aware of the struggle only this year, when Senator Bernie Sanders, actor Danny Glover, and NAACP President Cornell William Brooks joined union activists and labor leaders for a “March on Mississippi” that sought to highlight abuses of worker and civil rights at the factory.
Despite taking place in a community of just 13,189, the March 4 show of solidarity was one of one of the largest rallies Mississippi has seen in years.
An estimated 5,000 labor and civil-rights activists undertook an urgent mission to highlight unsafe working conditions and mistreatment of workers at the plant where an overwhelming majority of workers are African Americans. It called on Nissan to stop resisting union organizing efforts, and to allow a free and fair vote on whether workers can exercise their right to collectively bargain.
The union representation vote by more than 3,500 Nissan workers takes place today and tomorrow, amid complaints that the company has continued to resist the UAW’s efforts. Just this week, the National Labor Relations Board charged that Nissan had violated workers’ rights with its over-the-top anti-union pressure tactics. And this isn’t the first time Nissan has drawn their attention.
Organizers say the Canton plant has been the target of a long “Workers’ Rights = Civil Rights!” campaign because, as Glover has noted:
In late 2015, the National Labor Relations Board charged Nissan and a temporary worker agency with violating workers’ rights in Mississippi. The board found that Nissan unlawfully threatened to close the plant if workers unionized; threatened employees with termination for union activity; and unlawfully interrogated employees.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration has also issued multiple citations against Nissan for violations of federal safety and health laws. The most recent citation, issued in February, resulted after a plant technician’s left hand was caught in a conveyor belt when the machine started unexpectedly.
Nissan’s mistreatment of its workers is unconscionable, but it should also sound familiar to those who know history. The economic oppression of black workers began with slavery, continued in the Jim Crow era and now takes the form of suppression of union activity. Equal rights means the right to have a voice and a seat at the table with all the other stakeholders of Nissan.
“People get hurt too often at Nissan and these injuries can rob us of our ability to provide for our families,” explained Ernest Whitfield, a 13-year employee at the Canton plant, where the UAW has identified “systematic, prolonged and serious violations of labor rights.”