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The UAW and Mississippi

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As I’ve been traveling and largely out of internet range/interest, I have not been able to read everything on the overwhelming defeat of the United Auto Workers election to represent Nissan workers in its Mississippi plant. I had high hopes for this campaign because the workers are largely African-American and less inclined to unite with employers over racial and cultural issues such as happened in the VW plant in Chattanooga. But they only won about 1/3 of the workers. We could blame the UAW here in cliched pieces about how LABOR IS DOING IT WRONG and needs MORE SOCIALISM, such as this ridiculous Joe Allen summary that could have been written before the campaign even began. That essay shows no understanding of conditions on the ground or the organizing campaign or Nissan’s counter campaign. Instead, it’s just boilerplate leftist critique of labor that’s been around for decades. If we get at people who know what they are talking about, we see what really happened. Dominique Briggins is a good place to start, exploring the intense anti-union campaign from Nissan.

According to employee reports, and complaints from federal authorities, the auto giant threatened, coerced, and retaliated against those who supported joining in union. Nissan issued salacious claims that a union would lower wages, harm benefits, or even cost jobs. Managers screened anti-union videos on a continuous loop in plant breakrooms and pulled individuals into intimidating meetings to pressure them to vote against their own interest. The company even fired one person for wearing a pro-union T-shirt, while supervisors wore anti-union shirts to work.

Operating in a state scarred by slavery, Jim Crow laws, and the struggle for civil rights, Nissan has a shameful record of oppressing its predominantly African-American workforce and suppressing their votes. It’s no accident that the Canton plant is one of only three Nissan facilities in the world where the corporation resists working people negotiating over the terms of their work. During the most recent presidential election, managers told some employees they could not make any accommodations for them to vote if they were scheduled for 12-hour shifts that conflicted with voting hours.

The New York Times referred to the union election as “racially charged.” African Americans working for Nissan say the company rewarded white employees with promotions, and outside the plant, race baiters used propaganda to sway votes. White supremacist groups distributed a racist anti-union flyer urging people to vote against joining in union.

History is not lost on this moment. Yesterday marked the 52nd anniversary of the Voting Rights Act. The federal government prohibited discrimination in voting a century after the abolishment of slavery. It tamped down on laws in southern states designed to suppress the civil rights of African Americans and the poor. Nissan depriving thousands of southern, Black Americans of their freedom to vote and take part in democracy is an affront to all those who devoted their lives in the fight for voting rights in this country.

Mike Elk has also been covering this on the ground in detail.

The fight at Canton has pitted union activists against those who see unionization as antithetical to growth in a poverty stricken state.

“If you want to take away your job, if you want to end manufacturing as we know it in Mississippi, just start expanding unions,” governor Phil Bryant said last week.

All over town, businesses put up signs saying “Our Team, Our Future, Vote No August 3-4”. Local TV featured a similar message. Many workers reported pressure from friends, neighbors and others to vote against the union, so the plant would not close.

Then one-on-one meetings started. Thousands of workers were forced to sit alone with bosses and describe how they felt about the union drive. In such meetings, workers were told of the threat a union would represent. They were told unionization would make the plant more rigid and would lead to many workers not being able to get favors from bosses when they needed time off.

They were repeatedly warned that a union would make the plant a place of conflict.

“You feel threatened, and it’s a real fear,” said Mock. “If you want a day off, you want to spend time with your family, or you are too sick, you have to call this person and explain the situation is. It’s like, ‘If I don’t do it, then I am going to be treated differently.’”

This issue of capital mobility is a hugely important one. Nissan openly threatened to move the factory if it was unionized. Many workers want a union. They also fear for their jobs. Canton, Mississippi is a poor place. Many of these workers have a high school education, if that. They have few other economic options. They are scared. This is not different than the first attempts to organize the auto plants in the early twentieth century, with the exception of the very real threat of capital mobility. It barely matters whether Nissan would actually move the factory because so many unionized plants have closed that everyone knows it’s a real threat.

One of the biggest problems we on the left face in creating a nation where economic justice prevails is the ability of corporations to move production whenever they want, including if a union forms in their plants. That might be moving it overseas, or it might be moving it to Alabama. But until we make union representation something that does not end when a plant closes, but rather follows the company around, the rights of working people will almost certainly continued to be eroded and workers will remain frightened of the consequences of voting for what most know would help them if the factory does not close.

Meanwhile, the union members, who demanded the UAW hold the vote, claim they will be back. I believe they will. They see this as a long campaign. So long as the UAW will continue to back them, I do expect we will see future elections and hopefully, the fears of workers to vote for union representation will be ameliorated.

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