The United Auto Workers union is carrying its fight to organize the Nissan plant in Canton, MS, all the way to Geneva, where a group of ministers, workers and others are planning this week to call attention to the ongoing campaign.
The Geneva press conference, planned for Wednesday near the Palexpo center where the auto show is being held this week, follows one staged at Detroit’s North American International Auto Show in January and underscores the union’s effort to court new allies – notably African-American ministers, students, civil rights groups and politicians – in its bid to organize Nissan’s Mississippi employees.
The international auto shows give UAW President Bob King a stage to decry what he sees as a double standard. On one hand, Nissan says it subscribes to international charters allowing workers to join unions, while American managers in Canton and Smyrna, TN, campaign against the UAW, he alleges.
"We have had good support from the JAW (Japan Automobile Workers union) in trying to convince (Nissan) to take a different path,” King says in a recent interview with Detroit’s Metro Times newspaper.
“What happens is that all their public statements are right, about the UN Global Compact, about the International Labor Organization standards and the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) standards, and they’re going to honor those, but in reality their American management doesn’t.
"We’re going to brand them as a global human-rights violator," King adds. "And because in the auto industry it is so much about brand image, I think that’s something that could be really effective and for the first time we’re really taking that on.”
Rev. Melvin Chapman, pastor of Sand Hill Missionary Baptist Church, who plans to attend the pro-union press conference in Geneva, says Nissan employees “have the right to hear both sides, pro- and con.
"Now, they're just subjected to anti-union propaganda."
The support of African-American ministers is critical to the union. Nearly three-quarters of Canton plant workers are African-American, according to the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, MI.
The plant is about 30 miles (48 km) north of Jackson, MS, in an area that played a pivotal role in the civil rights struggle. Three civil rights workers were murdered in nearby Philadelphia, MS, and Medgar Evers, an activist in the state, was shot to death in Jackson in 1963.
The union has drawn support recently from Bennie Thompson, a prominent member of the Congressional Black Caucus. His district includes Canton, and he has been supportive of the auto maker's presence in Mississippi.
Michael Carpenter, a Nissan worker and UAW backer, tells WardsAuto that support by ministers and outside groups has prompted many workers to reconsider organizing a union inside the Canton plant.
"I want to have a voice in the workplace," says Carpenter, who also plans to be in Geneva. "I want Nissan to succeed, but we don't have a voice now."
Carpenter claims Nissan has been stepping up anti-union activity in the plant. "I think it's only fair that people hear from both sides," he says.
Union organizers sense an opening at the Canton facility, because Nissan has moved toward implementing a 2-tier compensation structure. Those recently hired for a second shift are temporary workers recruited by an outside contractor, rather than full-time Nissan employees.
"With Nissan, you have to look beneath the shine,” says the Rev. Isaac Jackson, president of the General Missionary Baptist State Convention of Mississippi. “Nissan builds great vehicles, but the company should respect the rights and dignity of its Mississippi workforce."
Actor Danny Glover also appeared at the Detroit press conference and spoke about the rights of Nissan workers to join the union.
The auto maker has responded to the union activities by reaching out to the Canton region and by stressing its economic contributions in the state.
"Our community involvement in Canton has been widespread and well-documented for many years, and we hold a close relationship with key community leaders,” Nissan spokesman David Reuter says in an e-mail to WardsAuto.
“Since 2003, Nissan and its generous employees have contributed more than $7 million to community organizations and are active volunteers in numerous community-service organizations.”
Reuter says allegations against the auto maker are unfounded.
“Nissan employees in Canton enjoy jobs that are among the most secure in Mississippi and offer some of the highest manufacturing wages in the state, strong benefits, a working environment that exceeds industry standards and an open dialogue based on transparency and mutual respect,” he says.
Nissan workers have voted overwhelmingly against union representation.
“And just as with in the past past efforts, the UAW’s current campaign in Canton, MS, has received little interest among employees," Reuter says, noting the auto maker never has laid off plant employees and the jobs are considered some of the most secure in the state.
In 2001, Nissan defeated a UAW organizing drive at its plant in Smyrna, after CEO Carlos Ghosn personally intervened, hinting in a video shown to workers the day of the vote that unionization could put the plant’s future in jeopardy.
Kristin Dziczek, a member of CAR’s research staff who specializes in labor issues, says the UAW has to organize auto makers beyond the Detroit Three in order to regain any wage-setting power in the industry.
Overall, pay for line workers has been coming down, primarily due to the weakened power of the UAW, she says.
"The unwritten contract for high ‘union-proof’ wages at the transplants broke several years ago,” she says. “The fact is, there is a wider use of contractors, lower starting wages...and you can’t overlook the 2008-2009 (economic) crisis that also put downward pressure on wages.
"But if Nissan has good employee relations, happy workers and pays well relative to other employers in the area, they shouldn’t worry about their workers forming a union," Dziczek adds.