At Nissan and beyond, workers’ rights are civil rights

“Like any embattled community that needs to rebuild, shepherding activism into the next generation requires that established organizers learn how to retire gracefully, and that those moving onto the front lines learn how to temper urgency with patience ­and that all sides recognize that there are things that they don’t know.”

-­ Michelle Chen, author of “What Labor Looks Like: From Wisconsin to Cairo, Youth Hold a Mirror to History of Workers’ Struggles”

My grandfather Joseph “Harris” Jackson was born in a small Louisiana town in 1921 during the heat of oppression in the segregated former Confederate state in the Deep South. Where black men were often found guilty under Jim Crow laws, sentenced and punished on the spot without due process. Soon after my grandfather’s birth his father killed a white man in self-defense. Fearing for his life, he moved his family, which consisted of my grandfather, his two older sisters and my great grandmother, to the neighboring state of Mississippi, where he had family on the Tennessee border in a small town named Tunica in the Mississippi Delta, where sharecropping and picking cotton was the way of life for blacks. My grandfather was then in the 2nd grade when he had to stop his studies to help the family out on the farm.

On their way to Tunica, they stopped in Jackson, Miss., where my great grandfather then changed our family name from Harris to Jackson to avoid authorities. My grandfather, as the story goes, was introduced to my grandmother in Tunica, and they were soon after married. In Tunica, they had three children before my grandfather heard of a better of life and employment in Illinois. They moved the family to Champaign, Ill., where other members of our family had moved previously, and he sought employment in Danville, Ill., at a General Motors foundry plant. He received a job as a janitor, making practically nothing, but in contrast, he said, “It was better than Mississippi.”

Soon after he began his employment, the United Auto Workers ran a unionization drive and won. Local 579 was formed and my grandfather was a proud member. Due to the unionization of the plant, my grandfather went from a janitor to a dignified job as a line worker, making a decent salary.

My grandfather died in 2008, shortly after witnessing America’s first black president elected to office. During his lifetime he witnessed our society go through many changes. At times it seemed as if there was no hope for people who looked like him, but he always kept faith in a brighter day. He taught me the value of hard work, helping others and unconditional love.

When we began to organize students and youth around what was occurring at the Nissan plant in Mississippi it seemed as if it was a no-brainer, and that anyone who would hear about workers being treated as second class citizens in America would be up in arms and would want to help them gain a voice. What we learned quickly was that a lot of our peers had never heard of unions, perceived Nissan as a benefit to the community, and believed that the money the workers are making gave them no right to complain. We started the Mississippi Student Justice Alliance with a mission of being the voice of our generation as it refers to social justice issues and specifically workers’ rights.

From surveying students we found that they had a great passion for creating a society that is fair for all. However students were perplexed on how to engage this work. On one hand, we are taught that we go to school to make good grades, to go and seek employment from companies or organizations that will pay us a lot of money so we can live a great life free of strife and worry. We are taught to find that special person, get married and have kids who we will be able send to college and provide for so they don’t have to go through any of the struggles we had to endure. We soon realize that this is a facade, a rarity. We find that most of us are average, and unless we can slam-dunk, have a mean jump shot, have a special way with a football or in any other sport or some special talent, places like Nissan, and sometimes even fast food restaurants, may be how we provide for ourselves and our families. We realize the American dream that we have worked so hard for in school is what we make it or are willing to sacrifice for.

Many of us are working students, sometimes having three or four jobs while trying to maintain a full load at school. For some of us, a college degree is a dream deferred. Some of us find ourselves in the Nissan employment lines.

For those that received a job before 2008, we may enjoy a full-time job from Nissan, but for the recent recruits, the only option we are given is a temporary job making $9­ to $12 an hour with the empty promise of full-time employment sometime in the future.

The question looms: “How do we build a permanent future with temporary work?” We have had the opportunity to learn from and interact with the workers who are organizing for a union at Nissan. We hear their stories of how they have no control over one of the major aspects of their life. They are tired of being disrespected by company management, having their injuries ignored, hours reduced without notification, and being intimidated for seeking a voice. As young people – considered the future of the workplace – we must place critical analysis on companies who devalue their employees. We have a responsibility to those who came before us, ourselves and the future generations to do all we can to change the conditions of workers worldwide.

We learn about bad companies from an American context that points the finger at other countries while being seduced with nationalism that gives a false sense of security, only to realize that these things are happening on our own home front, and in the case of Nissan, by a foreign company. We see how quickly we will be sold as cheap labor. This forces us to a realization that workers’ rights are civil rights, and the fight that that our forefathers fought is far from over.

With the understanding that hard work, helping others and unconditional love will bring about the change we know should exist. These principles that my grandfather instilled in me are present in the hearts and minds of the youth who have joined us in this fight for justice, which we know is bigger than just Nissan. As Michelle Chen so eloquently explained, “If we desire change established organizers must learn how to retire gracefully, and … those moving onto the front lines learn how to temper urgency with patience ­ and … all sides recognize that there are things that they don’t know.” We have so much opportunity to learn from each other and inspire each other. Young people are much more than a group of wild apathetic kids with their pants sagging, full of tattoos and piercings. We are all people who want good for all, and until we come together we will continue to be conquered. As a person of great faith I realize that the battle is already won, and giving up is not an option. We can make today different from yesterday only if we are willing to imagine tomorrow.

Chris Hani said, “What right do I have to hold back, to rest, to preserve my health, to have time with my family, when there are other people who are no longer alive – when they have sacrificed what is precious, namely life itself?” It is in his, and Rudy Lozano’s, spirit, that we are gathered here on this occasion. I am honored to be a recipient of an award that bears their names.

Thanks to the works of those who came before us, and those who laid the foundation like my grandfather, this new generation is equipped with the knowledge of how to make change, and it is become more and more apparent what we need to fight for.

Tyson Jackson is executive director of the Mississippi Student Justice Alliance and delivered the above keynote speech at the 26th annual People’s World Chris Hani & Rudy Lozano Social Justice Award gala, Jan. 12, in Chicago.