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The nation’s largest federation of labor unions sent in reinforcements ahead of the election at Nissan’s plant in Canton, taking place today and tomorrow.
The American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) hosted a gathering of union members Wednesday to show support for Nissan employees at the Canton plant hoping to be represented by the United Automobile Workers (UAW) in contract negotiations with Nissan.
Representatives from unions affiliated with the AFL-CIO came from states including Florida, Illinois and Ohio.
Brenda Scott, president of the Mississippi Alliance of State Employees and the Communications Workers of America, opened her remarks singing Solidarity Forever with the audience, which was largely made up of CWA and AFL-CIO members. She then recalled when Martin Luther King fought for better conditions for sanitation workers in Memphis back in 1968.
“I believe it would be a disservice Dr. King and those workers if the Nissan workers went in (Thursday) and Friday and voted no,” she said.
A key strategy for union backers has been to link the organizing campaign to the civil rights movement— which detractors have characterized as exploiting ever-present racial tensions in Mississippi — and as a battle between the haves (Nissan and some conservative politicians who oppose the union) and have-nots.
“What’s wrong with having a union when [CEO Carlos] Ghosn is getting millions of dollars and bonuses. It’s easy for them not to relate. They’re not going to make those millions without the workers,” Scott said.
Scott said that unionizing is necessary to fight back against unfair working conditions.
“I’ve heard too many horror stories,” Scott said. “It’s not fair for us to die to make a living. It’s not fair for us to be treated less than the workers in Alabama and [other neighboring states].”
Scott’s comments echo a refrain among union supporters after a worker named Derrick Whiting collapsed at the plant and died in September 2015. Some fellow workers said plant managers did not act quickly enough to save Whiting’s life, a sign, they say the company does not considering the health and safety of workers a priority.
Nissan officials say union organizers have created a “false story” about the circumstances of Whiting’s death.
“His co-workers stopped the line and did all that they could to help him. He was quickly in the care of trained personnel until the EMS transported him to the hospital. These false claims are insulting to those employees who offered aid in that situation,” said company spokesman Brian Brockman in an email.
Robert Sutton, chairman of UAW Local 1956 at the Siemens plant in Richland, said a union provides a certain kind of order in a plant.
“We meet every three years and go through our contract; we go through pay, benefits, health and safety,” Sutton said.
Nissan has fought hard in the last couple of weeks to win over the public opinion with ads on TV and social media. Yet Sutton said that he feels positive going into the vote.
“Our main concern is to motivate the [Canton employees] to go out and vote,” Sutton said. “I’m pretty confident we’ll win this election. A lot of my co-workers have family members who work for Nissan, and they’ve been asking questions because they’ve been getting a lot of misinformation. When we educate them they tend to make the right decision.”
AFL-CIO Mississippi Chapter president Robert Shaffer said Nissan’s ad campaign shows part of the problem.
“The money they’re spending on TV ads, doesn’t that tell you something?” Shaffer said. “If they had put all this money from the anti-campaign on the wages then they’d have pretty good jobs [for the employees].”
Workers eligible to vote are full-time and regular part-time production and maintenance employees. Temporary and contract workers, managers and professional employees and guards are not eligible, according to the National Labor Relations Board.
To win, the union must receive a majority of votes cast.