UAW vs. Nissan in Mississippi: Operation Dixie Revised? An in-depth look
Friday, August 3, 2012
This ran as the cover story for the July 18-24 edition
of the Jackson Free Press in Jackson, Miss. Related
stories also included sidebars on Danny Glover's visit
and Mississippi's financial investment in the Nissan
plant. The Sidney Hillman Foundation in New York
designated this as one of the nation's top stories of
CANTON, Miss. - Michael Carter hardly evokes the
Hollywood image of a podium-pounding, fire-breathing
labor agitator. With his dark blue "New York" cap,
light blue knit shirt, slight build and soft-spoken
voice, he looks like what he is: a 38-year-old working
man, husband and father of two.
He's talking with me in the United Auto Workers' newly
opened office just off Nissan Parkway and within view
of the 3.5 million square-foot Nissan plant. On the
wall behind him is a framed, black-and-white photograph
of Martin Luther King Jr. Prominent among the crowd of
men close to King is Walter Reuther, the legendary
labor leader who helped found the modern-day UAW, a man
Barry Goldwater once denounced as a "dangerous menace"
and arch-conservative Jackson (Miss.) Clarion-Ledger
columnist Tom Ethridge blasted in 1964 as "top
Carter has never been a member of a union, never
thought he'd ever want or need to join one, but he also
never forgot what a union card meant to his father. "I
learned more about it when my dad got injured on the
job. He worked with the railroad. When he hurt his
back, they tried to say he was drinking, and he wasn't.
The union fought for him, and he got his full benefits
"I kind of began to understand at that point."
Nine years ago, when Carter landed a much-sought-after
job with the $1.4 billion Nissan plant in Canton,
joining a union was the farthest thing from his mind.
"You had good benefits, good pay, ... an illusion of
Today, the Tupelo, Miss., native earns $23 an hour as a
production technician at Nissan. It's a good wage in a
state with the lowest per capita income in the nation,
some $15,000 more a year than the average
However, Carter is not only thinking and talking union
these days, he's one of growing number at the
3,300-worker plant who've taken a lead in calling for
an election to determine whether he and his colleagues
should join the United Auto Workers.
He tries to piece together for me the path that led him
to want to be a union man, just like his dad.
Maybe it started with the company's changes in his
health care benefits. "They said too many people were
going to the emergency room." He soon found his
premiums going up and his deductible jump from zero to
$2,500. "I had a spot on my leg, and the doctor wanted
surgery in case it was cancer. I filed for insurance,
and they didn't pay any of the bill. They said, `You
haven't made your deductible.' It was $800. I thought
they'd pay some of it."
As for his wages, they're good, but he hasn't had a
raise in years-- he feels he's "topped out" at $23 an
hour--and there's little or no chance for promotion.
Meanwhile, the line speed has increased on the shop
floor, production requirements going up even at times
when the workweek is cut back. "We asked why did it go
up if we cut back to four days. They didn't really give
us an answer."
And that's at the heart of the problem.
"You don't have a conversation. No feedback. No answer.
When they told us about the new (health) plan, the
deductible, they couldn't explain it. There's no
What he and other workers do get from management, he
says, is a lot of talk about how horrible unions are.
Whether it's focus meetings or one-on-one sessions, the
message is always the same: "Ain't nothing good about a
Carter has a hard time digesting that message. "I say
that can't be true. There's good in anything."
(To the right is Nissan worker Jeffrey Moore)
Fellow technician Jeffrey Moore, 34, a 10-year veteran
who earns the same hourly wage as Carter, says his
interest in the UAW "is not about money, it's all just
about being fair," even though he wonders why he hasn't
had a pay raise since 2006 and why workers at Nissan's
Smyrna, Tenn., plant typically make $2 or more an hour
than Canton workers. "I have a daughter and a wife.
That's another reason I want a union. I want to retire
at Nissan and make sure they're okay."
Lee Ruffin, 45, a nine-year veteran technician, is
another Nissan employee talking union. "Everything was
fine, everything good, until 2005 and 2006 things
started going downhill. Losing benefits, insurance,
increasing line speed, which is a safety hazard, people
getting hurt on the job, lots of strains and sprangs.
"Governor Bryant needs to come down and work and see
Of course, Carter, Moore and Ruffin aren't holding
their breath for that to happen. Bryant didn't respond
to several requests for interviews for this story, but
he warned recently in a speech in Oxford, Miss., that
unions would have a negative effect on the auto
industry in the South and he would encourage groups to
actively oppose unionization.
The governor is part of a powerful phalanx of business,
political and media leaders that stands in total
opposition to any hint of a union in Mississippi's
automobile industry. "We don't believe a union is
needed up there," says Jay Moon, president and CEO of
the Mississippi Manufacturers Association. "We don't
believe the union would provide any benefits that the
workers don't have already."
Many Mississippians agree. "I just have a problem with
unions in general," says Nelwyn Madison, 66, of
Madison, Miss., a former part owner of a software
business in the Jackson area. She admits her direct
contacts with unions have been limited. "I just
absolutely do not think employees have a right to tell
employers how to run a company. If you don't like where
you are working, then you need to go somewhere else."
Nissan officials certainly agree. "We feel the best way
to interact with employees is through direct, two-way
communication as opposed to involving a third party,"
Nissan spokesman Travis Parman says. "This approach to
employee relations has been very successful, resulting
in a healthy and positive work environment, and
encourages the free exchange of ideas."
Carter begs to differ. "They says there's an open door,
but you may not get an answer to your question."
A legendary union and a powerful corporation square off
These testimonies from the two sides of the union
question at the Nissan plant in Canton are early
volleys in what promises to be a landmark battle, a
high-stakes squaring off that could become global in
scope. For the UAW, Canton is key to a $60 million plan
to establish its footprint in the South and beyond. At
the center of the union's strategy is to have Nissan
agree to a set of "Fair Election Principles" that allow
both sides equal time in presenting their case to
workers. Union leaders stress they respect Nissan and
want the company to be financially successful.
However, if Nissan refuses to engage in a "fair
election"--and CEO Carlos Ghosn's long record of intense
antagonism to U.S. unions indicates it most certainly
will--the UAW takes its case to a world stage. UAW
officials have talked of a consumer boycott on a scale
not seen since the grape boycott that established Cesar
Chavez's United Farmer Workers in the late 1960s.
Expect workers and community activists carrying banners
and passing out leaflets at Nissan dealerships across
the land. The Canton story will even be heard at global
Just this week a Nissan-Canton worker accompanied UAW
President Bob King to Brazil to speak to Brazilian
trade unionists there. UAW representatives are meeting
regularly with trade unionists in Brazil, Japan,
Germany, France and other countries.
(To the left is student activist Tyson Jackson)
The UAW Global Organizing Institute is already drawing
interns from around the nation and world to Canton to
help coordinate a social media networking and
organizing effort. "There is a silent storm brewing in
people, and the rain is going to start coming down,"
says Tyson Jackson, 31, one of those interns, a
Tougaloo College student from Champaign, Ill.
"Here I can feel the fear of the workers," says Luara
Scalasarra, another intern and a labor law student from
the Estate University of Londrina in Brazil. "In
Brazil, they don't even need to vote. They can just
form a union. But it is really good this campaign here.
I really believe in this campaign."
The UAW is preparing the same kind of "corporate
campaign" that recently forced the Reynolds American
tobacco giant finally to agree to meet with the Farm
Labor Organizing Committee in North Carolina. A similar
campaign by workers at the Smithfield pork processing
plant in Tar Heel, N.C., in 2009 led to their victory
in joining the United Food and Commercial Workers.
On the other side, however, is a potential formidable
foe, the world's fourth-largest automaker, whose CEO
and president once warned Nissan workers in Smyrna in a
required meeting on the day before a union election
that "bringing a union into Smyrna could result in
making Smyrna not competitive, which is not in your
best interest or Nissan's." Workers voted down the
Carlos Ghosn, a Brazilian of Lebanese descent who also
is a French citizen and British knight, enjoys
comic-book hero status in Japan for his role as the
"turnaround" artist who saved once-struggling Nissan.
To many in France, he's the villainous "cost killer"
who shut down plants and slashed jobs on his rise to
the top, and who more recently oversaw the
implementation of harsh workplace demands at Nissan's
French partner Renault that are believed to have
contributed to several suicides and suicide attempts
between 2005 and 2008.
Onto this battlefield have marched Mississippi workers
like Carter, Moore, and Ruffin, proclaiming they're
never going to be heard unless they speak as one voice.
In the heart of the conservative, "right-to-work"
South--a term labor activists ridicule as really meaning
"right to work for less"--they want to do what the
Wagner Act of 1935 gave them full and protected legal
rights to do: join a union.
They aren't the first Nissan workers to talk this way.
Back in 2007, James Fisher, Yvette Taylor and Stanley
Martin challenged at public meetings the Camelot image
of one of Mississippi's premier manufacturers. They
told of terminations for job-related injuries,
intimidation, and anti-union propaganda. Workers at
Nissan's Smyrna plant also came to testify to
humiliations and a caustic disregard for work-related
injuries and illnesses.
"Nissan's got this big halo, this rainbow over them,"
Fisher said at the time. "It's all on the outside. We
have to fight tooth and nail on the inside. They can do
what they want to on the inside. It's always somebody
trying to cut somebody's throat."
On hand was a wide range of religious and former civil
rights leaders and community and political activists
who became the seed of a grassroots movement that has
now ripened to the point that the UAW can say, "Now is
the time." Canton, Mississippi, is the place where it
will stake its future, and perhaps even the future of
the nation's labor movement.
UAW fighting for its life and its future
UAW officials insist they're here because Nissan
workers want them here, that this is a
worker-and-community-fueled effort. Certainly workers
have reached out. What can't be denied, however, is the
UAW is in a fight for its survival. It must not only
staunch the bleeding that has reduced its membership by
75 percent in the last 30 years--from 1.5 million in
1979 to less than 400,000 today, but also once again
thrive and grow in a new economy is making the South
what Detroit once was in the automobile industry.
Speculation about where the UAW would focus its
do-or-die campaign has been heated in the labor and
automobile press since January 2011, when UAW President
King revealed the union was coming to Dixie come hell
or high water. Early reports pointed to the Volkswagen
plant in Chattanooga, Tenn., the Hyundai plant in
Alabama, or the Toyota plant in Kentucky as Ground
Zero. "If we lose, we'll die quicker. If we win, we
rebuild the UAW," King told Labor Notes.
King said something prescient even earlier in his
October 2010 statement to mark the One Nation March in
Washington, D.C.: "We cannot sit back and wait for
change to happen. We are the ones who must make change
on behalf of all people. Every great achievement for
social justice has been the result of the mobilization
of people to achieve a just purpose."
With such oratory, King, who took over the UAW
presidency in June 2010, evokes the memory of another
eloquent speaker, Walter Reuther, who braved brutal
attacks by anti-union goons at his home and in the
famous "Battle of the Overpass" at the Ford Company's
River Rouge plant in Michigan in 1937 to put the UAW at
the forefront of the nation's labor movement. In
contrast to many other labor leaders, Reuther later
embraced the civil rights movement and stood with
Martin Luther King Jr. on the steps of the Lincoln
Memorial during the March on Washington in 1963.
In many ways, today's South is a far cry from the South
Walter Reuther knew. It emerged from its bloody and
futile resistance to civil rights in the 1960s to
become the heart of the "Sunbelt", encouraging industry
and investment, and eventually "Detroit South", which
along with the Midwest is home to more than a dozen
foreign-owned automobile assembly plants plus many
other parts factories. What hasn't changed in the
South, however, is the hostility of its political and
business leaders to unions.
Despite union contracts at plants at their home
countries, none of the German and Asian-owned plants in
the region is unionized, a glaring reality to a UAW
that has had to make concession after concession to the
Big Three in this struggling economy and witness the
subsequent downward pull on worker wages and benefits
The UAW is no stranger to the South. In fact, a
sit-down strike at General Motors' Lakewood plant in
Atlanta in November 1936 became the first shot fired in
the historic all-out "Battle of the Running Bulls" that
would take place in Flint, Mich., in early 1937, an
event that rivals the "Battle of the Overpass" in
importance in UAW history. More recently, in 2003 and
2004, the union won major organizing campaigns with
Freightliner workers in North Carolina, Tennessee and
Georgia. In fact, the UAW scored victories at smaller
companies in Alabama and Kentucky within the past
The UAW actually has been in Canton since 2005. In
March of that year, then-UAW President Ron Gettelfinger
and then-Vice President and National Organizing
Director Bob King came to Mississippi to meet with
workers and community leaders.
It wasn't until recently, however, that the union
firmly decided Canton would be "the perfect place" to
take its stand, as UAW Region 8 Director Gary Casteel,
an Alabama native whose region includes the South,
Casteel lobbied hard to make Canton the UAW's choice
even though he knew "there's no guarantee to win." He
and others emphasize that race isn't a central issue,
but the fact that an estimated 80 percent of the
workforce at the Canton plant is black was a factor.
Studies show blacks are comparatively more open to
Mississippi's rich civil rights history was another
factor. Organized labor as a whole needs to recapture
its identity as a social movement, something it had in
the 1930s but had lost by the 1950s.
"I had to advocate hard for this," Casteel told me in a
recent telephone interview. "We have tremendous worker
support there. Nissan hired a heavily African-American
workforce. I think that is a plus because of the
history and the battles fought in Mississippi against
all odds. Being from Alabama, knowing how this works in
the South, it is just one of those things, the heritage
of Mississippi. They have had to fight for the things
they have achieved."
Unionizing the South: A long struggle
A fight is what it will take in the South, a region
where coal miners and textile workers in the 1920s and
1930s saw their efforts to join unions brutally
suppressed. In 1946, when Congress of Industrial
Organizations president Philip Murray launched
"Operation Dixie" to organize Southern workers, he
spoke of a "civil rights crusade" that would be "the
most important drive of its kind ever undertaken by any
labor organization in the history of the country."
Labor organizers fanned across the South, targeting
textile, oil, lumber and other industries. Even in 1946
they knew the South was key to labor's future.
Operation Dixie ended largely in failure, however, as
the region's power elite locked arms and exploited the
racial divide and post-World War II fear of communism
to keep workers from joining unions. Today the South
remains the nation's least unionized--and least
paid--region, a uniformly "right to work" land where
organizing is doubly difficult because workers can
enjoy the hard-earned gains in wages and benefits of a
unionized workplace without having to join the union.
(To the left is veteran labor organizer Bruce Raynor
during a recent visit to Canton)
Still, the South's anti-union reputation never had a
thing to do with the workers themselves, says Bruce
Raynor, perhaps the most successful labor organizer in
Southern history. The hostility to unions comes
primarily from the South's political, business, and
media establishment, he told me in a recent telephone
"I have always found Southern workers very receptive.
It takes persistence. They are up against the powers
that be. Southern workers don't like being pushed
around, being taken advantage of."
A native New Yorker and president emeritus of Workers
United, Raynor worked with the Textile Workers Union of
America in the 1970s in the history-making struggle
with the powerful anti-union textile firm of J.P.
Stevens. That struggle, vividly depicted in the film
Norma Rae, led to victory after a corporate campaign
that included a national boycott, court challenges, and
a high-level public relations effort to embarrass the
company into recognizing workers' rights.
"With J.P. Stevens, people thought it was hopeless,"
Raynor recalled. "They ran the state, the local
However, the secret to victory is community, he said.
"As long as the union lets it be driven by the
community, and also involving the religious community.
Southerners tend to be religious people. It was the
same way in the civil rights movement."
Recognition of that need motivated the June 3 press
conference in Canton where U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson,
D-Miss., Mississippi NAACP President Derrick Johnson,
General Missionary Baptist State Convention President
Isiac Johnson and others stood alongside a group of
Nissan workers to pledge their support for a fair
election at the plant. Thompson made it clear that he
will monitor Nissan's behavior closely in the months
As in the past, the biggest obstacle organizers face is
"They have these anti-union meetings--they call them
focus meetings," Michael Carter says. "They say, `we're
going to give you the facts. If you have a union, we'll
close the plant.'"
Workers also fear their jobs may be eliminated or
re-classified. The company depends heavily on so-called
"temps", workers hired on a less-than-fulltime basis
with more limited pay and benefits. UAW officials say
the 1,000 new jobs Nissan recently announced it was
adding to the Canton plant will all be "temps".
"There's a fear they'll make our jobs temps," says
Nissan spokesman Travis Parman discounts such fears.
"Our communications meetings with employees are not
new. We continuously and routinely meet with our
employees to openly discuss matters pertinent to our
As for the "temps" issue, Parman says, "Our direct and
contract positions are long-term jobs that offer
competitive pay and benefits. ... Nissan has never laid
off a single employee in the nearly 30 years it's had
manufacturing operations in the U.S."
Like all Americans, Southerners have had a realistic
fear of plant shutdowns and relocations to Mexico and
China ever since the passage of the North American Free
Trade Agreement in 1994. They've seen it happen again
and again. The textile and apparel industries alone
suffered the erosion of more than 700,000 jobs between
1994 and 2003.
Sujit CanagaRetna, senior fiscal analyst with the
Southern office of the Council of State Governments in
Atlanta and an expert in the Southern auto industry,
believes the UAW will have an uphill fight to convince
Southern workers a union will better their lot.
However, he says, auto workers should not fear the kind
of shutdowns that devastated the Southern textile
industry. "That is always the boogeyman, but it is not
that easy," CanagaRetna says. "That is an unlikely
scenario. I think there would be negotiated
settlements. I don't think we run the risk of Nissan
closing shop and leaving."
The foreign transplants' advantages in the South are
too numerous, he says. Their proximity to major
markets, ports and other transportation, and an
established network of suppliers would override
concerns about a union. Furthermore, he says, unions
have changed. For example, UAW leader King has
distanced himself from many of the old work rules and
other factors that management scorned as impediments to
productivity and profitability. "The whole environment
has changed in terms of union versus nonunion
environment," CanagaRetna says. "It has become much
more of a collaborative process."
Mark Klinedinst, professor emeritus of economics at the
University of Southern Mississippi, believes unions
actually benefit a company as well as workers.
"Typically unions have been in the forefront in getting
better wages, benefits, working conditions. That is a
very honorable tradition. It helps make for a stronger
middle class. I think it is important as corporations
get larger, that employees have a chance to have a
voice as well. Modern management says that in all parts
of an institution important stakeholders should have a
voice. Unions could offer that channel."
The prosperity the nation enjoyed from the 1940s
through the 1960s came at a time when union
representation was at its highest, Klinedinst says.
"We'd be helped by having a stronger middle class."
Certainly the folks at the UAW would agree, and so
would workers like Michael Carter, Jeffrey Moore and
Lee Ruffin. Nissan officials believe their workers
already have the tools to make a strong middle class.
One of the most famous labor ballads of the 1930s asked
the age-old question: "Which Side Are You On?" It's a
question waiting for an answer in Canton, Mississippi.
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