JACKSON, Miss. - United Auto Workers President Bob King, and Hollywood actor Danny Glover are in Johannesburg, South Africa, where that country's powerful Metalworkers union has come out fighting for the right of 5,000 Mississippi Nissan workers to organize a union.
King and Glover are in South Africa seeking support for workers at the huge Nissan plant in Canton, Mississippi. Their trip is ironic to many who remember that only decades ago it was the UAW that was backing the struggles of the metal workers and so many others in South Africa against apartheid.
Speaking by phone about this today, Glover pointed out another irony: "The irony of this - and I want to point out the irony - is workers here in South Africa have union representation - workers in Brazil have representation and workers in Germany and Japan have representation."
Cedric Gina, president of South Africa's National Union of Metalworkers, also by phone, echoed Glover's concern; "Workers in Mississippi are like workers in the third world," he said. "They have no basic rights and this meeting is about supporting the workers of Nissan in Mississippi."
The campaigning in South Africa comes only a week after release of a study that showed Nissan has reneged on its promise of high-wage job creation in Mississippi even as it is sapping the state of $1.3 billion in subsidies it is getting in exchange for supposedly creating those high-wage jobs.
"This is the largest incentive package that we have encountered in the auto industry," said Philip Mattera, research director of Good Jobs First and co-author, with Good Jobs First research analyst Kasia Tarcznska, of the report, titled "A Good Deal for Mississippi?"
Full-time workers earning $19 to $22 per hour have not received a wage increase for at least five years. One worker getting a haircut at a barber shop off of State Street in Jackson, Miss., yesterday said that it has been just as many years since Nissan hired a full-time certified mechanic of any type at the Canton plant.
"Instead they are filling up the plant with Kelly Agency temporaries who earn only $9 an hour," said Tyson Jackson who was also at the barber shop. Jackson is president of the 200-member Mississippi Student Justice Alliance that has been one of many groups supporting the workers at the Canton plant.
Workers at the Canton plant estimate that as many as 4 in 10 of all the employees there are Kelly temporaries. To be eligible for the lavish subsidies it has received, Nissan, as per promises it made, should be paying 125 percent or more of the average state wage to its workers. That amounts to a minimum of $19.75 an hour. But the average wage at the Canton plant is far less because it is brought down by the hiring of so many temporaries.
"But it's not just the low wage temporaries that are the problem," said Jackson. "The full-time workers are being hurt because they are not getting adequate benefits and they won't have anything for retirement or health care once they retire. Also, they are being denied their basic right to form a union."
Jackson said Nissan is stoking fear among workers. "They force them to attend meetings and listen to anti-union propaganda and they lie and say that if the union comes in they may have to shut down the plant or lay off a lot of workers," he said.
"You've got to understand how scary this can be. This is a poor rural state. Even a $9-an-hour job sounds very good when you have nothing. Full-time workers may have lived in trailers before. Now they have a little house and a car but they have to take care of one or more kids and a family. They are afraid that they might lose their jobs if they come forward for the union. This is what the company is counting on."
Another Nissan worker at the barber shop in Jackson said he had been forced to watch anti-union videos about how unions force companies to shut down and move overseas. "It scares the hell out of me. We were shown pictures of how factories moved out of Detroit, killing that city. The company gave out T-shirts that said, 'If you want a union, move to Detroit.' I have a wife and kids and I'm treated like a kid and told you can't talk about unions at work. Is this fair?"
Mississippi Alliance for Fairness at Nissan (MAFFAN), the coalition backing the Nissan workers, wants a fair union election, wants the company to cease threats to close if workers choose unionization, and wants the company to give the UAW equal time in making its case to the workers.
Jackson said students have joined the coalition of workers, religious organizations, civic and community groups "because young people are the key here. This is our state, our home and we are at the top of the consumer market for Nissan. Through social media and other avenues we will prove to Nissan that our generation, like the generations that fought the great civil rights battles, cannot be taken for granted."
Photo: Morris Mock, who works on the Paint Line, and Michael Carter,who works in the Body Shop, with actor Danny Glover, hold up pictures of Mississippi workers who were threatened by Nissan. The protest at the Detroit Auto Show in January dramatized the hypocrisy of Nissan, which issued threats in the face of union organizing efforts. Do Better Together Facebook page.