The workers at the Nissan plant in Canton, Mississippi, had high hopes when the state-of-the-art factory complex moved in fourteen years ago to a small, majority black town where more than a quarter of residents live in poverty and decent jobs are scarce.
As the manufacturing economy stagnated in the early 2000s, Nissan brought a streak of Clinton-era economic optimism into this struggling corner of the South. The global auto giant erected a multinational enterprise that is now the largest local employer, with more than 5,000 blue-collar jobs for an area with a workforce of fewer than 8,000. The factory’s launch was intended to make Canton a keystone of Mississippi’s “advanced manufacturing” growth agenda, promising decades of job development.
But paint technician Morris Mock sees his hopes evaporate every day on the line.
After fourteen years at the plant, he says, “People are hurting inside of my factory.” His fellow coworkers have been concerned by what they see as increasingly unstable working conditions and general deterioration in benefits and safety protections. A few years ago they campaigned to organize with the United Auto Workers (UAW). Since then, he says, the workers have faced growing hostility from management for seeking to unionize, which only confirms its disrespect for a community that’s invested decades of public funding and faith in Nissan’s promise of stable manufacturing careers.
“Being in a union—it has its good points and its bad points,” Mock observes, “but it’s consistency that makes the union so special . . . you know how much you’re going to get paid, you understand the health and safety situation, and you can fight against it.”
Mock says safety conditions have steadily worsened as tensions with management have swelled. He wishes he felt safer not just on the factory floor, but also in speaking out about the conditions. “You may have an ergonomic issue inside the factory, but you have a voice that can actually fix the problems.”
As mounting economic distress has stoked a bitter and reactionary political climate, the Canton plant braids together many national conversations about the future of work in Trump’s America. Workers like Mock hope to kindle a southern labor revival.
But Nissan, hewing to the “job creator” rhetoric pushed by many southern conservatives, has refused to meet with union advocates. In a statement to Dissent, the company denied the union’s charges, insisting, “we recognize the employees’ rights to decide for themselves whether or not to have third-party representation.” Nissan promotes a “mutual cooperation” approach toward labor relations, as spokesperson David Reuter told the Jackson Advocate, by “deal[ing] with employees directly . . . without the interference and disruptions that often result from a union.”
But pro-union workers say they’ve been “dealing directly” with supervisors who regularly threaten them with retaliation while continuing to distribute anti-union propaganda to other workers. In a 2013 investigative report by the Mississippi NAACP and UAW, workers reported that management regularly intimidated workers known to support unionization and subjected them to “‘Big Brother’ anti-union messaging on in-plant TV monitors” and “captive-audience meetings with thinly veiled hints of lost jobs.” The subtext was that unionization could drive the factory out of business and workers could implicitly be blamed if the plant ended up losing their jobs to Mexico. Organizers have also repeatedly accused management of illegally interfering with the distribution of pro-union materials around the factory grounds, and in 2015, the UAW litigated against both Nissan and the staffing firm Kelly for restricting workers’ right to wear pro-union shirts at work.
Autoworkers were complaining long before Trump rode his anti-trade platform to Washington. Multinational companies like Nissan have also long deployed Trumpian rhetoric themselves, warning about jobs fleeing across the border when trying to squelch pro-union sentiment. Trump has criticized U.S. automakers for outsourcing, suggesting that Japanese firms could be in trouble as well. However, erstwhile Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn expressed confidence that the industry could “adapt” to Trump’s purportedly protectionist agenda.
Similar tactics had reportedly been used at another Nissan plant in Smyrna, Tennessee, where unionization efforts were repeatedly crushed in the 1980s and 1990s. Last year, the union-free Smyrna factory became an example of the potential consequences of an unaccountable management: a worker’s skull got crushed by a 1,275-pound counterweight while inspecting a newly repaired conveyor belt. As one of many recent workplace disasters in southern auto factories, the incident was another grim reminder of what was at stake at Canton now that Nissan was deploying the same union “deterrence” strategies that had been successfully field-tested years ago at Smyrna. And it wasn’t just their physical safety on the line. According to Good Jobs First, after initially defeating the union drive, Smyrna management began prescreening new hires for what it deemed “pro-labor views.” Now Canton may be labor’s last stand against Nissan’s empire.
More than a wage
Publicly, Nissan boasts that it invests millions on plant safety while paying relatively high wages to its workers, ranging from about $12 to $26 per hour (a living wage for a single parent and a child in Mississippi is roughly $20). But workers want more than a paycheck; they want their work to feel valued and to build their community.
“Money is not the main issue at all,” said Patricia Ruffin, in comments published in a recent union report. Ruffin says that, having worked at the plant since it launched, she was more concerned about declining safety than whether their campaign will drive the plant out of Canton. “The main issues are our healthcare and safety. It’s gotten to the point where there’s an injury every day. It wasn’t that way in the beginning. They showed more concern back in 2003.”
After the first few years, she recalled, the company began scaling back insurance and pensions. And when she began discussing unionization with colleagues, she said, a supervisor questioned her about attending pro-union meetings, suggesting she should quit if she didn’t like working there. It was clear to her then that “management doesn’t care if you stay or not.”
But workers do. “It’s a good job, but I feel like I don’t have a voice, and I want that voice,” said Canton worker Michael Carter at a recent solidarity rally at a Nissan dealership in Nashville.
Besides, the vast majority of Nissan’s forty-five plants around the world are unionized—but not in the United States. “This is something they deal with every day. So we’re asking . . . why do the three in the South not unionize?” Carter asked. “We deserve that same respect; if we are one company, let’s be one company.”
Since only about 7 percent of Mississippi’s total workforce, about 73,000 workers, belong to a union, a few thousand additional UAW members in Canton would be a boon for labor in the South.
Mississippi’s anti-union tradition goes back decades; it was one of the first states to pass a “right-to-work” law back in 1960, and today similar laws have spread to more than half of states nationwide, pushing steadily through the once union-heavy Rust Belt—even Michigan, where auto unions have lost clout in recent years. Though various political and social shifts have eroded the labor movement in the South, right-to-work policies have institutionally weakened unions by effectively barring the closed-shop workplace model, allowing individuals to forgo fees that support workplace organizing and collective bargaining.
While labor has atrophied in the post-industrial South, automakers have recently moved in. The advanced manufacturing investment boom has developed the Jackson Metro area into a national auto-manufacturing hub.
Critics say the automaking boom is a lopsided deal for Mississippians, however. State officials courted Nissan with $1.3 billion in state and local “incentives”—tax credits and other corporate handouts—in exchange for a thirty-year plan to revive the local economy. Over time, the company has absorbed $500 million in infrastructure and training investments, while draining some $842 million from public coffers.
Locally, Madison County’s $300 million subsidy package for Nissan was bled from dwindling infrastructure and school budgets—meaning that workers’ wages are supported by funds sapped from their children’s “failing” school district. The state’s schools have been underfunded since 2008, and now get $11 million less than what state law requires. And so far, despite bringing new jobs to the area, a major share is estimated to be temporary workers, hired as contingent staff by an outside firm. Typical temp starting wages might be as little as half of their directly employed counterparts, according to organizers, with no guarantee of stable hours or long-term job security, a stark contrast with what the community had hoped to achieve through Nissan’s thirty-year investment program. At the very least, the workers organizing a union want to negotiate a conversion of temp jobs to full-time positions while curtailing Nissan’s runaway tax breaks.
The sense of resentment over Nissan’s unfulfilled promises grew in the fall of 2015, when the company clashed with workers over the sudden on-the-job death of Derrick Whiting. After the thirty-seven-year-old collapsed during a late shift, his coworkers say he sought help at the in-house medical unit, but was then sent back to the line for the last time. He died at the hospital hours later. The company insists it was “non-work related.”
Mock says that safety conditions can’t be separated from the lack of workplace organization. Over the years, as his pension was cut back and he struggled to afford medicine for his daughter or himself, the factory kept racking up safety violations. Workers at the plant observe that as workplace tensions have escalated, the plant has gotten several federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) citations, including two severe machinery-safety violations, with fines totaling more than $60,000. Whiting’s coworkers fear the factory that the community had banked on for secure jobs is now making them increasingly insecure at work, both economically and physically.
Mock thinks the workers deserve more for the community’s investment. Since the government has helped finance Nissan’s operations, he said, “the workers are the real controllers of the plant. . . . You’re taking our tax dollars to build your factories but you’re still not treating us right.”
But organizing the plant is a challenge. With temporary hires taking up a large portion of the workforce under the plant’s two-tier system, building unity in such a deliberately divided workforce could spark internal tensions. And it remains to be seen to what extent the collective-bargaining unit would include long-term contingent employees.
The Canton workers’ struggle parallels the fraught dynamics at another contested southern factory, Chattanooga’s Volkswagen plant, where a botched union drive resulted in a smaller “members-only” minority union. The National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation is suing over the “micro-unit,” claiming the independent quasi-union “diluted” the value of other workers’ votes.
Faced with the company’s systematic “brainwashing” of coworkers with anti-union messaging, Mock says, “there’s a lot of reprogramming that we have to do in order to get a solid answer of whether or not they want a union. . . . That’s the reason why we need a fair election and [to] stop the threats and intimidation of workers.”
The standoff in the deep South between a black working-class community and a global auto giant reflects a broader anti-Trump resistance emerging in the labor movement, fueled by frustration with the empty promises of neoliberal “development” policies. The Trump administration has, despite his anti-globalist campaign rhetoric, hewed to the pro-corporate agenda of Obama. Meshing business with geopolitics, Trump has sought to strengthen ties with Japan’s right-wing prime minister Shinzo Abe and boost investments from flagship companies like Nissan. And though he has boasted of bringing good manufacturing jobs “back” from foreign shores, Canton’s sputtering “development” suggests any jobs that do return would likely be more profitable for speculative capital than they they would be for the blue-collar workers left behind.
Canton is in many ways one chapter in a long history of social upheaval in the South. Throughout the twentieth century, from the New Deal through the postwar era, Mississippi was a hotbed of both labor unrest and anti-racist activism, as union mobilizations intertwined with the early civil rights movement. The onset of deindustrialization and chronic poverty are now reviving those old linkages.
Although the battle to unionize the Canton plant has been ongoing for years, since the election this community has joined the frontlines of the national anti-Trump resistance. The campaign has gained national attention as the left again seeks a more comprehensive labor alliance: a coalition that works to dismantle the corporate power structure of the globalization age, to revive organized labor through both formal unionization and workplace mobilization campaigns; and to re-engage under-represented and marginalized communities with a radical economic platform. So the battle came full circle with a rally in Canton in early March organized by Mississippi Alliance for Fairness at Nissan, an alliance of labor, civil rights, and community organizations, boosted by prominent left-leaning politicians like Senator Bernie Sanders and former Ohio state lawmaker Nina Turner. Blanketing the area with red shirts emblazoned with “the March on Mississippi,” the marchers framed the battle at Nissan in historical terms, with the reactionary political climate under Trump conjuring up the ugly ghosts of the Gulf’s past labor strife.
Derrick Johnson, head of the Mississippi chapter of the NAACP, told the crowd of thousands, “if you understand why there is even a civil rights movement . . . you would understand, it’s about the rights of workers not to be exploited for free and cheap labor.” When he, as a civil rights advocate, took a leading role in the Nissan campaign, he added, “people said [labor issues are] irrelevant. When I look at this crowd, I see a whole lot of relevance today.”
The alliance of racial and labor justice advocates resonates globally. Though campaigners say a union at Canton would bring U.S. workers in line with Nissan’s other factories abroad, the company’s union suppression tactics are also transnational. As journalist Tim Shorrock observed, Nissan’s history of union-busting traces back to a pivotal hundred-day strike at a central plant in Japan in 1953, which ended with the squelching of the Zen Jidosha movement, a radical leftist faction, and the takeover of the more business-friendly Confederation of Japan Automobile Workers’ Unions that still reigns today. (The clash was evidently backed by occupying U.S. forces seeking to suppress labor conflict to stabilize its Western ally in the Pacific.)
Still, despite “cooperative” industrial relations, sporadic worker uprisings have surfaced in Nissan’s global supply chain. Last spring workers at a Mexican Nissan plant launched a strike to demand higher wages and full-time jobs, frustrated with earning just a fraction of what their U.S. counterparts were paid. In the end, the Independent Nissan Mexicana Workers Union wrangled a 4 percent raise and an agreement to add 500 full-time positions—a labor victory that might make Nissan’s executives in the South reconsider exporting more U.S. jobs to Mexico.
As part of a global workforce, Mock has realized the transnational valence of his shop’s campaign during his multiple visits with labor delegations to Brazil to meet with leaders of the national industrial unions. Last February in Río de Janeiro, outside a summit of the Olympics organizing committee, he rallied alongside about 200 trade unionists, in a demonstration coordinated by the global union federation IndustriALL, to demand a fair union vote. Marino Vani, IndustriALL Assistant Regional Secretary for Latin America and the Caribbean demanded that Nissan “negotiate with the UAW and allow its workers to organize freely. . . . We cannot let the Olympic torch be carried by a car produced by a company that maintains anti-trade union practices in its supply chain.”
But the real frontline remains back in Canton, where hope is growing that a union election sometime in the coming months would be, if not quite an Olympian feat, a southern triumph over the anti-union stance of corporate America. (In April, UAW Secretary-Treasurer Gary Casteel stated there were no plans for a formal election but, “If this goes to a vote, the company would need to ensure a free and fair election.”)
In conversations with coworkers, Mock tries to “explain it like a pastor would explain it.” In his view, a redemption is in order. “It’s a difference [between] tipping the community and giving tithes to the community . . . helping the community because you’ve taken the community’s most valuable resources—the workers. And I think every business owes it to the closest community, to just give back,” he says.
Mock’s campaign at Canton helped him discover that his closest community of coworkers extends far beyond his small town; now they just want the company to recognize them.
Michelle Chen is a contributing editor at Dissent and co-host of its Belabored podcast.