From Freedom Summer to Mississippi Nissan plant: “We got the power”

CANTON, Miss. – Marking the 50th anniversary of Freedom Summer, student activists joined with Nissan workers, civil rights veterans, community supporters and actor/activist Danny Glover to score a moral victory over the giant automaker here, Friday June 27. Here’s an eyewitness account:

Under dark skies, almost 1,000 workers, students, civil rights veterans, and community activists descend on Nissan’s mile-long plant here. Young activists continuing the legacy of student civil rights advocacy during 1964’s Freedom Summer march side by side with Nissan workers. Among them is actor and humanitarian Danny Glover, who has made the Nissan workers’ struggle for union rights a personal cause.

The gray Nissan plant is huge. Over 6,000 Mississippians work, without a union contract, in the building every day. Their efforts make Nissan one of the most profitable car manufacturers in the world. Between January and March of 2014 Nissan reported $1.1 billion in profits.  

Much of that profit has been extracted from the work of poor black and white Mississippians who haven’t seen a raise in five years. Moreover, approximately one-half of the work at the Nissan plant is done by temporary workers who are paid around $10 an hour, poverty wages here. These workers are constantly threatened with losing their jobs, or never coming off of temporary status, if they support the union. As 11-year veteran Nissan worker Diane Moore puts it, “Nissan, lead us not into Temp Nation.”

Today’s event is about more than pay. It is about the fact that that on this mile of Mississippi farmland, workers live in constant fear. Sadly, if you work for Nissan in Canton, your basic rights as an American to speak and assemble freely are null and void. Morris Mock, a tall man with a ready smile and the build of someone who has in fact worked building Nissans for a decade, says it plainly: “Once you step into that plant you cannot speak your mind.”

Nissan’s retaliation against workers who do attempt to exercise their basic rights is well documented. One example is the case of Calvin Moore, an 11-year worker for Nissan with a spotless work record. Moore is known as an open supporter of the union, and regularly wears pro-union shirts to work. When interrogated by his supervisors, Moore refused to answer questions about the union. He was then fired on March 5, 2014, for insubordination, with management citing a warning he had received four years earlier. Nissan refused all requests for documentation of his alleged insubordination.

Workers and activists around the globe rallied in support of Moore. Less than a month after his firing, workers from three of Brazil’s largest labor federations protested outside a Nissan dealership in Sao Paulo. Later that April, in a coordinated effort using social media and the power of such celebrities as Danny Glover and the rapper Common, a group of eight students from Jackson State University and Tougaloo College visited the Canton Nissan plant, demanding that Nissan management meet with them to discuss Moore’s termination and the need for a fair union election. Two days later, Calvin Moore was reinstated with full back pay.

Outside the media spotlight, workers say much worse happens. Workers injured on the job are sent to company doctors who attribute work-related injuries to sports, work around the home, or fishing. Workers are forced into one-on-one meetings with management and told their jobs are gone if they unionize. The culture of fear and intimidation is so strong at Nissan that some workers, regularly denied bathroom breaks, wear adult undergarments to work in order to keep their jobs.

Today, workers, students, and fellow activists trudge through mud, and jump over ditches thick with weeds and water, arriving outside the massive Nissan complex with the sound of beating drums. They include young people from the Mississippi Student Justice Alliance, Youth Congress and Concerned Students for a Better Nissan, clergy and others from the Mississippi Alliance for Fairness at Nissan (MAFFAN), Nissan workers, and other community supporters.

As the long line comes to a stop just before the first gate, many dance and sing, “Up with the workers, yeah, yeah; down with the bosses, no, no.” Many carry signs proclaiming, “Workers’ rights are civil rights.” In the shadow of the Nissan water tower looming above the pines the crowd congeals around a high energy ring shout. Clapping and shouting, the students and workers cry their discontent: “Tear down Babylon! Union workers are the bomb! We’re ready. We’re coming.”  

The crowd sings and dances until called to order by Father Jeremy Tobin of St. Moses the Black Priory. A short man with a white goatee, wearing a Roman collar, Father Tobin leans back and cries out, “Lord G-d of justice,” and the crowd falls silent. He continues his brief homily, invoking the almighty to lead the workers in their fight for civil rights, because, “these workers have the right to a free and fair election to form a union.”  

Dr. Isiac Jackson, chair of  MAFFAN, puts the Nissan workers’ struggle into perspective. Gripping the microphone in his fist, Jackson tells the crowd the Nissan plant was, “built on the land where slaves picked cotton.” He goes on, “After the Civil War sharecroppers worked the land until the end of Jim Crow, when the sharecroppers ran off. The bosses paid workers $2 a bale to pick cotton, and Nissan is still paying sharecropper wages.” He draws back, breathing in the Mississippi afternoon, and roars, “We’re here to say ‘Union today, union tomorrow, union forever!” The crowd explodes, shouting its agreement.

In the spirit of Freedom Summer, this is more than a rally in front of Nissan. Danny Glover takes the lead in direct action, attempting to deliver a petition signed by thousands of workers, students, concerned citizens, and religious and community leaders addressed to Nissan management. Workers want nothing more than to make the Nissan plant in Canton, Miss., a safer and more productive factory. The demand of the petition is humble: Sit down with us.

Turned away from the main gate, Glover and a group of 50 workers and students, accompanied by this reporter, are directed to a gate where management sequesters itself, half a mile away. The group trudges through the sweltering Mississippi farmland before reaching the gate where they find no less than 10 Mississippi Highway Patrol cruisers, county sheriff’s department blazers, and Nissan security vehicles, flashing oscillating blue and red lights. A few hundred yards away, we stop briefly, and 10 workers and activists are chosen to approach the gate with Glover to try to enter the plant to deliver the petition.

Climbing a small hill onto the paved drive, it is clear we are in the mouth of a monster. To the left and rear of the group, tucked behind their blazers, are deputies carrying rifles, wearing black tactical gear and combat boots. In front of the workers and students is a yellow line marking company property and a cordon of state troopers and Nissan security, many with their hands on their pistols.

Fearlessly, the workers and students march, with Glover at the lead, towards the entrance. Nissan security people move to meet them. A stern white-haired man with a military haircut and conservative moustache, Steven Hovsepian, senior manager of security, shouts from a distance, “Can I help you?”

Glover responds, gently touching his chest with his hand, “My name is Danny Glover, and I am here to deliver a petition to management on behalf of the workers.” Accompanied by troopers and Nissan security, Hovsepian approaches as deputies lean around their vehicles behind us. Glover once again introduces himself, asks Hovsepian how he is doing, and if the group can deliver the petition to management. The racial line that rips across the State of Mississippi is starkly apparent. Except for one, every member of management and law enforcement are white and aged 30 to 60 while the 10 workers and students are mostly black and of all ages.

Without giving his name, or any sort of greeting, Hovsepian says there is “no one available” to take their petition despite the fact that multiple Japanese company managers can be seen sitting in idling Nissans less than 20 yards away. Glover, clearly stunned by the blatant falsehood, eventually nods and walks away while the crowd gasps and more than one person is heard asking, “Really?” and “Is that it?”

The group draws back into a huddle to confer, when Glover unexpectedly marches towards the gate, the delegation of 10 hurrying behind him. “I walked all this way to talk to you” he says to the security manager, “and I want to talk to someone.” Hovsepian, staying behind the troopers and security agents 30 yards or so away, attempts to deflect Glover by repeating that there is no one to receive the petition. Glover waves his arms to silence the noisy crowd in the distance, before turning to the head of security. “Listen, I told you my name,” he says. “The least you can do is walk over here and talk to me like a man.” Impassioned, Glover repeats, “Walk over here and talk to me like a man.”

The security manager confers with one of the Nissan managers before slouching over to Glover and the 10 workers and students. “I can take that for you,” he offers, reaching out for the petition. Glover retorts, “Will you give this to management?” The workers and students are toeing the yellow line as troopers inch closer. Hovsepian surrenders with a sigh, “I will make sure it is received,” and takes the petition.

Back with the thousand-some crowd we learn that workers have been trying for years to get management to accept their right to organize and sit down with them and talk about how to improve working conditions and productivity at Nissan.

The fact that Nissan management in Canton publicly has accepted the petition presented on behalf of 6,000 workers for the right to organize is seen as a significant victory not only for workers in Mississippi, but for workers everywhere fighting for a living wage and the right to form a union. Led by students from across the country, the crowd chants, “We got the power. Because WE are the collective!”

Photo: Students, workers and supporters rally at Nissan’s Canton, Miss., plant, Friday, June 27. James Raines/PW 


James Raines
James Raines

The late James Raines was a life-long union worker, a union organizer with the Communications Workers of America, and a proud member of CWA's Media Guild. Writing articles for People's World from 2011 through 2014, Raines covered the Occupy movement in Memphis, demands for LGBT rights in Tennessee, the struggles of the Nissan workers in Canton, Mississippi, and the protests for justice in Ferguson, Missouri.