Over the past five years, the United Auto Workers union has been trying to organize a Nissan plant in Canton, Mississippi, with little success. A rally tomorrow (March 4) featuring Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-Vt..), NAACP president Cornell M. Brooks and the actor/activist Danny Glover may help turn the tide.
Dubbed the March on Mississippi, tomorrow's action was organized by a coalition of civil rights leaders, ministers and labor activists called the Mississippi Alliance for Fairness at Nissan. After rallying at the city's sports arena, workers and supporters will march two miles to the Japanese automaker's production plant and deliver dozens of letters about allegedly unsafe working conditions and retaliation against workers trying to unionize. Of roughly 5,000 workers at the plant, which opened in 2003, 80 percent are Black.
In February, the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) charged the plant with a “serious” violation in response to an incident last December when a technician's hand was caught in conveyor belt. Mississippi Today reports that the company must install audible alarms and lights to let workers know when a conveyor is about to start moving. OSHA also said employees weren't adequately trained in shutting down machines in an emergency. In 2015, the National Labor Relations (NLR) board charged Nissan and a temp agency it works with of illegally denying workers' rights to wear pro- or anti-union clothing and threatening to fire employees or close the plant in retaliation for union organizing.
We spoke with March on Mississippi principal Danny Glover earlier this week. In this edited and condensed interview, he talks about why he is involved in the Nissan fight, his alliance with Bernie Sanders and why we need to "mature our thinking" about class issues.
I know that you've been involved in many, many causes throughout your lifetime and career. Why Canton, Mississippi, and why now?
I've been involved in this campaign for four years. I came down to Canton, Mississippi, in 2012. Charles Evers [the brother of slain Civil Rights leader Medgar Evers] asked me to come down there [to present] a scholarship. And I knew about what was happening with workers in Canton, Mississippi. In my comments I said, "We can never say what someone who died so young would have [done], but Medgar Evers [was working] on civil rights and worker's rights. I believe he would have stood with workers at Nissan in Canton, Mississippi, fighting for their rights to organize the union." I've had connections with unions virtually all my life. I came up in a union family.
Can you talk about the specifics of the Canton campaign?
Nissan has 45 plants around the world, and the only ones that are non-unionized are in America—in Canton, Mississippi, and in Decherd and Smyrna, Tennessee.
[I once went on a] delegation to South Africa [with] the president of the United Auto Workers. The union and Nissan had a collective bargaining relationship that dealt with job safety, leadership, wages, benefits, healthcare, all of that. I went to a meeting where about 600 workers heard their union leaders talk about the contract that they had negotiated and voted on it. That doesn't happen with Nissan in Canton, Mississippi.
Why do you think that's the case?
I think it's pretty evident that it is the South. It's a continuation of the system [of] Jim Crow, which was born out of slavery. Basically, it's an issue of civil rights—worker rights are civil rights. The South has always been anti-union.
One of the things I've read is that a lot of the Nissan workforce in Canton was hired through a temporary worker agency, and that their wages are significantly lower than full-time workers.' Has Nissan has tried to invoke the temporary status in saying no to unionizing the plant?
Well, first of all, all the employees were initially full-time employees. So the workers have been there 13 and 14 years. And they had benefits, good wages and a relationship with the company. But then the plant resorted to temporary workers who do the same jobs as those workers who are permanent and have been there some time. Now the workforce is about 40 percent temporary workers. Some temporary workers are there for three and four years but don't have a sense of permanency and make significantly less that the permanent workers. These are the kinds of things that you work out within the union [through] collective bargaining.
The March on Mississippi is being forecasted to be one of biggest in the state since the Civil Rights movement. Bernie Sanders, whom you've been a big supporter of, is going to be there. Sanders has faced criticism from some in the racial justice movement that his emphasis on class erases race. Can you comment on that?
I like Bernie based on principle, the principle that he talked about working people and talked about the rigged economy, the same issue that Trump talked about. ...I know that Bernie Sanders worked in the Civil Rights movement and raised his money by small donations, not by super PACs
I think we have to kind of mature our own thinking about what the real issues are around here, you know? Certainly nobody denies slavery is the center of what this country was built around. Everybody accepts that and realizes that. So if we de-emphasize race in the service of class, we're making a mistake. But if we de-emphasize class in the service of race, we're making a mistake as well. You get what I'm saying?
The workers in Canton, Mississippi, are primarily Black. The people I worked with when I was on a campaign with hotel workers were primarily Black, Latino and Asian. The one person who understood the intersection between race and class was Dr. King when he organized the Poor People's March. He wasn't just talking about Black people, he was talking about Hispanic, White, Asian and poor people.
What can everyday people outside of unions do to support Nissan workers in Canton?
Well I think one of the things is we want to make people aware that this is a national campaign. An important part of this campaign is that Nissan markets to everyday people, to young people, to African-Americans. So Nissan has an image problem right here, right now. You can't sell me a product when you're discriminating against workers. Yet this is not a boycott of Nissan products. I want to make that very clear. The workers are proud of the products that they make. But [carbuyers] have to think about what is happening to those workers who are making that car. When they go to [a Nissan dealer], they should tell them that in Canton, Mississippi, the workers are not treated fairly and do not have a union.
For more information on the March on Mississippi, visit its Facebook page.