Before Alexandra Landing started working at the Nissan Canton Vehicle Assembly Plant, she was struggling to make ends meet.

“A lot of us were single parents. We had children young and we didn’t have the financial opportunity or the resources to be able to finish college,” she said of herself and her colleagues.

Since then, she and other fellow workers not only have good, stable jobs and the opportunity to finish college and even earn master’s degrees, Landing said she also met her husband at the plant.

“I’m excited about the life we have because Nissan came here,” said Landing, wearing safety goggles and a maroon polo with the Nissan logo embroidered on the chest.  

Landing tells her story in a video Nissan produced for a Facebook page titled “Our Team, Our Future,” part of the company’s education campaign to promote the life-bettering opportunities ahead of the plant workers’ first vote on whether to unionize.

The election takes place Aug. 3 and Aug. 4 inside the plant in Canton. In addition to videos such as the one featuring Landing, the “Our Team, Our Future” Facebook page includes information about requirements of membership in the United Auto Workers, such as pledging allegiance to the union, and stats about Nissan’s competitive salaries and the company’s economic impact to the state.

The election is shaping up to be a clash of titans. For 2016, Nissan, which is headquartered in Yokohama, Japan, reported profits of $4.4 billion on revenues of $101.4 billion. The Detroit-based UAW held $791 million in assets for the 2014 federal tax year, the most recent available.

Still, Nissan is getting help from Mississippi’s political and economic development community to beat back the UAW.

A report from Mississippi Economic Council released Thursday states that jobs in the automotive manufacturing industry grew more than 64 percent between 2010 and 2016, now employing 18,251 people who earn an average of $50,501 per year.

At a press conference unveiling the study in Jackson, business leaders said that Nissan would be at a competitive disadvantage if the plant unionizes.

“Every state out there is competing for new projects, new facilities or the opportunity to expand existing facilities. Anything that hampers the ability of the company to be successful is going to hurt our competitive advantage in Mississippi,” said Scott Waller, MEC’s interim president and chief executive officer.

Whether labor unions hurt or help economies has long been the subject of debate. Union supporters argue that organized labor helped end abusive practices such as long work hours and unsafe working environments. Meanwhile, foes of unions say that heavy handed tactics serve to enrich union bosses and helped bankrupt union stalwarts such as Michigan and Illinois.

Between 1983 and 2015, union membership declined by 2.9 million, a Cornell University analysis of federal data concluded. At the same time, union members tend to make more money.

In 2015, full-time workers who were union members had median usual weekly earnings of $980, while non-union workers had median weekly earnings of $776 — or 79 percent of union members’ earnings, the study showed.

Also, union membership is strongest in local government and amongst African Americans. The UAW and its supporters have compared the union effort at Nissan, which employs a large number of African Americans, to civil rights movements.

Dr. Dolphus Weary said it is unfair to compare unionization efforts to civil rights campaigns. Credit: R.L. Nave, Mississippi Today

Dr. Dolphus Weary, co-chair of Move Mississippi Forward, objects to that strategy, calling it an unfair comparison.

“I went out there to look for what is the racial mix of the people. I expected a high percentage of whites and a low percentage of blacks. I found out it was an equal number of minorities and whites,” Weary said.

He said after talking to managers at the plant, he felt confident that all employees had the same opportunities to earn equal pay and work in a safe environment.

“I think that there are a couple of lenses we’re looking at. There’s an old lens: We needed the union 40 years ago, 50 years ago. Absolutely. The question today is do we need somebody else to come in and challenge the plant to do the right thing? I just take the position of trying to challenge the plant to do the right thing for all the the employees,” he said.

The MEC’s report comes days after news that Nissan supplier Calsonic Kansei plans a $16.3 million expansion in Madison with 98 jobs, earning $52,000 per year on average, the Mississippi Business Journal reported.

Gov. Phil Bryant has also come out in Nissan’s defense, writing on his own Facebook page:

“The United Auto Workers and Socialist politicians like Bernie Sanders have come to Mississippi to try and unionize one of the most successful automotive plants in America. This is nothing but a con game to destroy private market success and replace it with government control of free enterprise,” he wrote.

Duane ONeill, president and CEO of the Greater Jackson Chamber Partnership, said economic development leaders will have to work harder to convince businesses to come to Mississippi if Nissan workers join a union. Credit: Alex Rozier, Mississippi Today

Duane O’Neill, president and CEO of the Greater Jackson Chamber Partnership, agreed with MEC’s Waller that unionizing could hamstring Nissan, which contributes $5.7 billion to the state’s gross domestic product of $105.8 billion.

However, he believes the state would recover.

“If the election goes a certain way to bring the UAW in, I think we just have to be prepared to be able to tell the world that’s not going to impact anything that this state that these communities can do for industry.”

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Ryan L. Nave, a native of University City, Mo., served as Mississippi Today's editor-in-chief from May 2018 until April 2020. Ryan began his career with Mississippi Today February 2016 as an original member of the editorial team. He became news editor August 2016. Ryan has a bachelor’s in political science from the University of Missouri-Columbia and has worked for Illinois Times and served as news editor for the Jackson Free Press.

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