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Nissan Workers Organize in the Deep South

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As the sun set on March 4, a new and important step was made in reestablishing an old, familiar working-class tradition – organizing a union. While unions have lost support and membership over the last 30 years, the recent March on Mississippi was a clear sign that many workers are realizing that in the age of Trump, they need to form strong unions.

Thousands of workers at the Nissan factory in Canton, Mississippi protested on March 4 against what they saw as intimidation tactics against workers. Of Nissan’s global manufacturing network, only 3 of 45 factories don’t have union representation, and all three are in the southern United States. Brian Brockman, a Nissan Communications Director, said in a public statement that the workers don’t want a union and that “these efforts are part of a campaign to pressure the company into recognizing a union, even without employee support.” However, this position is undermined by a report conducted by the Mississippi NAACP, which observed that the Canton based factory has started hiring a number of workers from temp agencies, possibly as a way to defuse unionization attempts. These temporary workers are paid less, easier to fire, and are less likely to stand with full-time workers’ efforts to unionize out of fear of reprisal.

The reasons for the unionization push in Canton are unfortunately all too common. The factory workers are worried about suppressed wages, abusive schedules, and unsafe working conditions. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has cited the Canton factory for multiple violations in the past that put worker safety at risk, and union supporters say this is one of their major concerns. Without union representation, the workers are deeply concerned that their call for action will remain unanswered  and that the keeping of the status quo will eventually lead to someone being seriously hurt or killed.

Unbroken Thread: Workers’ Rights and Civil Rights

Alongside the workers marching were public figures like actor Danny Glover, NAACP President Cornell William Brooks, and Senator Bernie Sanders. The fact that a self-described “democratic socialist” was helping support the drive for unionization shouldn’t be lost on anyone. Socialism is, at its very core, a fight for worker’s rights, and unionization attempts, historically at least, have often been closely tied with various trends of socialism.

The march also highlighted the interconnections between civil rights and workers’ rights. Throughout America’s history, from W.E.B. Dubois to Martin Luther King, Jr., most civil rights leaders understood that civil rights and economic rights were closely connected. In the months before King’s assassination, he helped launch the Poor People’s Campaign which culminated in a mass occupation of the nation’s Capitol. He was assassinated while supporting striking sanitation workers in Memphis, where he famously asked, “What does it profit a man to be able to eat at an integrated lunch counter if he doesn’t have enough money to buy a hamburger?” He saw true and genuine equality as both racial and economic. The Nissan plant and the workers’  march took place less than two hundred miles from where King was killed.

Mississippi has the highest African American population of any state, and over 80% of the Canton factory workers are African American. Therefore, the March on Mississippi, where civil rights activists and union activists marched hand-in-hand, shows the important connection between these two movements, especially in the South, an area that has historically been less than hospitable to unionization movements and socialists. This is a testament to the growing working-class consciousness that is helping workers start to realize who their real enemies are, and that black workers and all workers in general can gain power by organizing a union and demanding their rights.

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