June 10, 2013
By Danny Glover
As an actor/social activist, I never thought I’d see the day when the workers of South Africa have more freedom to join unions than the workers of Mississippi.
Last week, I visited South Africa with a delegation of Mississippi workers, clergy, students and UAW leaders to request support from their auto union, the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa. There’s a special bond between the unions. In the 1980s, the UAW fought against apartheid in South Africa and for workers’ rights. When political prisoner and South African leader Nelson Mandela was freed in 1990, he traveled to Detroit to thank the UAW.
This time, we asked South Africans to help mobilize in support of the right of Americans to organize unions.
In South Africa – as in Japan and most other countries – Nissan workers have collective bargaining rights, and the company and unions work together. But Nissan has decided it won’t permit American workers to have that same respect. Nissan is treating its American workforce as second-class citizens. When Nissan workers in Canton, Miss., began to organize, the company reacted with intimidation tactics and implied threats to close the facility. “If you are pro-union, you are anti-Nissan,” they said. The company subjected workers to one-on-one and group anti-union meetings, and has refused to agree to a fair election.
Located near the center of the civil rights movement, Canton is the site of the murders of Medgar Evars, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner. In Canton, civil rights and freedom struggles fill the air and dreams of every man, woman and child. Fifty years later, Canton is at the heart of this struggle for economic justice and the American dream.
Just over a decade ago, taxpayers offered Nissan hundreds of millions of dollars in incentives to locate in Mississippi. Instead of delivering on expectations of full-time jobs, Nissan relies on a large pool of temporary labor for production. These workers earn just over minimum wage, have few benefits and no job security. Nissan claims to never have layoffs, but it lets go of temporary workers at will.
Canton’s Nissan workers support their company and its products, but they have health and safety concerns. They also question why pay and benefits are less in Mississippi than at Nissan’s Tennessee plant. Canton Nissan workers reached out to the UAW because they want to have a voice and a seat at the table to discuss these issues.
When the company moved to suppress this union effort, community leaders rose up. The Mississippi Alliance for Fairness at Nissan is led by the president of the Mississippi Baptist Convention and includes the state NAACP president and other civil rights and church leaders. Student activists from historically black colleges mobilized as the Mississippi Student Justice Alliance.
As someone committed to human dignity and civil rights, I believe their struggle for the right to freely form a union is one of the most important issues of our time. I’m committed for as long as it takes. As long as powerful corporations such as Nissan use fear and threats to keep workers weak and without a voice, America won’t be a land of opportunity for all. With the help of our brothers and sisters in South Africa, we won’t let that happen.
*This opinion piece originally appeared in the June 5, 2013, edition of the Detroit News.
(Actor/social activist Danny Glover takes Nissan to task – speaking outside the Japanese Embassy in South Africa, Mr. Glover says workers in Mississippi have fewer rights than their counterparts in South Africa. Photo by Michele Martin.)