This week, thousands of courageous workers at a Nissan plant in Canton, Mississippi, are doing just that. They are voting for the right to join a union, the right to make a living wage and the right to job security and pensions. And they are doing so by connecting workers' rights with civil rights, as the plant's workforce is over 80% African American.
But Nissan, like other large corporations, is doing everything it can to stop these workers from forming a union. In the lead-up to the vote, Nissan management has been deluging employees with anti-union literature and is threatening to close the plant if a majority of its workers vote to establish a union.
Supervisors have called workers off assembly lines for one-on-one interrogations. Anti-union videos are being run on a constant loop in employee break rooms. Groups of workers have been called into "roundtable" meetings to hear management disparage the United Auto Workers (UAW).
Nissan has been saturating local TV and radio with anti-union propaganda. This could go down as one of the most vicious, and illegal, anti-union crusades in decades. Workers should never have to endure this type of threatening campaign or walk through a minefield just to vote for a union.
The truth is Nissan is an all-too-familiar story of how greedy corporations divide and conquer working people. The company has brought in large numbers of contract employees and paid them less than they paid full-timers for the same work -- an old trick for driving down everyone's wages. The company is also telling those undecided about the union that their pro-union co-workers would cost them their jobs.
They have threatened the local community, saying that if the plant in Canton was unionized, it would move somewhere else.
Sadly, these kinds of threats matter a great deal in towns like Canton. Mississippi is the poorest state in the country, with over 30% of children living in poverty. The average weekly wage is just $727, the lowest in the nation. Very few people in the state have a defined benefit pension plan, and one out of five suffer from food insecurity.
Large corporations like Nissan like to set up shop in states like Mississippi because they know that when safety nets are frayed, and people hit hard times, they're more likely to accept low wages and poor working conditions. They know how to exploit human misery and insecurity, and turn them into high profits.
Nissan is no stranger to trade unions. It has union representation in 42 out of 45 of its plants throughout the world -- from Japan to France, Australia to Britain. But the company does not want unions in the US south, because unions mean higher wages, safer working conditions, decent healthcare and a secure retirement.
Corporations like Nissan know that if they stop workers in Mississippi from forming a union, wages will continue to be abysmally low in this state. Further, if workers are unable to form unions and engage in collective bargaining, Americans throughout this country will continue to work for longer hours for lower wages. As Americans, our goal must be to raise wages in Mississippi and all over this country, not engage in a destructive race to the bottom.
Nissan is not a poor company. It is not losing money. Last year, it made a record-breaking $6.6bn in profits and it gave its CEO more than $9.5m in total compensation.
Those kinds of obscene profits are a direct result of corporations' decades-long assault on workers and their unions. Forty years ago, more than a quarter of all workers belonged to a union. Today, that number has gone down to just 11%, and in the private sector it is less than 7%. And as corporations and Republican politicians succeed in decimating the right of workers to bargain collectively for better wages and benefits, the American middle class, once the envy of the world, is disappearing while income and wealth inequality is soaring. We have got to turn that around.
I proudly support Nissan workers' fight to form a union. What they are doing takes tremendous courage. If they succeed in forming a union it will not only improve their wages and working conditions, but will benefit workers across the south and all across this country.
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