6,000 Nissan Workers Forced to Work During COVID-19 in Mississippi

The Historic March on Mississippi in 2017 (AP)

On Tuesday, Nissan shut down Britain’s largest car plant in Sunderland, where over 6,000 mostly white members of the British union Unite maintain a powerful check on the company. 

However, in Canton, Mississippi, over 4,000 non-union and largely African-American auto workers at Nissan’s plant are being forced to work in conditions that workers say are ripe for spreading the deadly COVID-19 virus. 

“This act of industrialized racism and social injustice has been taken to a new low!” says African-American Nissan worker Morris Mock, a veteran of the 17 year-long campaign to unionize the plant. “Now upper management gets to stay home while workers get infected! No Union! No Justice!”

Many workers say it’s impossible to maintain healthy social distancing on auto assembly lines. 

“How can you build an automobile standing 6 feet apart in gatherings less than 10?” says Mock. 

“You got people sneezing inside of the vehicles. It’s pollen season, people have allergies,” laments Travis Parks in a thick Southern drawl. “The pollen has started real bad here. Everybody is somewhat nervous and the spread of it…over the last couple of days, it’s doubled in the state.” 

“When you have a plant of 6,000 people that are in-and-out of here in a 24 hour period, it can spread quite fast,” says Parks.

While Nissan has told salaried employees that they no longer have to report to work, they are requiring their blue-collar force to come into work. It has workers, who have struggled for more than a decade to organize the plant, talking union once again.

“Everybody is on edge. They want to come to work cuz they feel that they have to get a paycheck. I don’t know many people who can live two weeks in quarantine without a paycheck,” says Travis Parks of the plant, where temporary workers, who aren’t eligible for unemployment if they get laid off, make as little as $12.75 an hour building Nissan Altima sedans.

“I think making and buying cars isn’t the most important thing. I don’t think buying cars is people’s priority right now,” Parks says of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Parks says that without a union, workers have no legal framework to protect them from such abuses. 

Unlike Nissan’s 43 unionized plants in Europe, Asia, and Latin America, Nissan’s 3 North Americans are the only ones in the company that aren’t unionized. As a result, workers in Canton, Mississippi often joke that they are the company’s “test pilot.” 

“We are considered as crash test dummies,” says Morris Mock. “They have always called us the pilot factory! This is a very dangerous terminology because they can literally push us to our breaking point.”

While Nissan is closing plants overseas because of COVID-19, Mock says that the company is willing to ask workers to do things that they wouldn’t at the automaker’s plants outside of the American South. 

“That’s the number one reason why they are here [in Mississippi]! They understand that poor workers will disregard their own safety to feed their families,” says Mock. 

In August of 2017, over 6,000 Nissan workers lost a historic union election at its plant in Canton, Mississippi by a margin of 2,244 to 1,307 after the company repeatedly threatened to close the plant if workers were unionized. 

Senator Bernie Sanders, NAACP President Derrick Johnson, and Danny Glover came down to lead the 6,000 people strong “March on Mississippi” in March of 2017 to mobilize community support on the union’s behalf. 

“If we can win here at Nissan, you will give a tremendous bolt of confidence to working people all over this country. If you can stand up to a powerful multinational corporation in Canton, Mississippi, workers all over this country will say, ‘We can do it, too,’” Bernie Sanders told a crowd of over 5,000 union activists from all around the South who marched on the plant singing “We Are Ready, We Are Ready We Are Ready, Nissan”. 

However, Nissan spent over $500,000 on TV ads warning the community of the consequences if workers voted for the union. The company enlisted local small businessmen to deploy thousands of yard signs reading “Nissan Canton. Our Team. Our Future.” all over in the town of 13,000, just 20 miles north of the state capital of Jackson. 

“If you want to take away your job, if you want to end manufacturing as we know it in Mississippi, just start expanding unions,” white Republican Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant warned on TV shortly before the vote. 

Overall, Nissan spent approximately $12.5 million on a sophisticated psychological, legal, and media campaign to defeated the union drive in 2017 according to information obtained by Payday Report from sources within the UAW.

Ultimately, the union lost. However, workers predicted that the union effort was far over and that the

“The company is gonna help us win this next campaign and they don’t even realize it because they are not going to keep their word,” Nissan worker Castes Foster told me in 2017. “Once a snake, always a snake.”

Now, two years later, workers at Nissan say there is renewed interest in the union as the company disregards their safety while the COVID-19 pandemic sweeps America. 

With the outbreak of COVID-19, workers at Nissan are determined to try again. 

“I think keeping constant pressure on a company this size is always a good idea,” says Nissan worker Morris Mock. 

The workers have powerful allies and could make an international fight with Nissan over forcing non-union workers in the South to work during the COVID-19 pandemic while white workers in Britain aren’t being forced to work

The workers even have a lethal weapon they are willing to deploy against the company– their friend, actor Danny Glover. 

The son of postal worker union leaders, Glover, has continued his family’s heritage, traveling regularly to Canton, Mississippi as well as other places to draw attention to the struggle of the Nissan workers there. He says he’s gotten to know many of the workers personally and is willing to do whatever it takes to help them.

“I think about that campaign, the resistance that the company, Nissan, put up to those workers even to vote to have a union,” Glover told Payday Report in an interview about the company’s union-busting during the 2017 campaign. 

“I think something is happening here and we are gonna be able to talk about Canton, Mississippi, about organizing workers and their right to organize for unions,” says Glover. “I think we are in a new era”. 

Glover, who in the past has traveled to France and elsewhere to pressure Nissan, has made it clear that age 73, he is still willing to go wherever to take on the automaker. Earlier this month, while campaigning for Bernie Sanders in Jackon, Danny grabbed beers with Nissan workers in Jackson to talk organizing.

“I’m not too old for this shit,” jokes Glover as he mimics his famous line from Lethal Weapon.  “I’m not too old for this shit. Far from being too old for this.” 

After 17 years of struggle, Nissan workers say that the fight to prepare for COVID-19 has mobilized many workers against the company. They say that they are prepared to build a massive coalition to try once again to win a union in Canton, Mississippi.

“We need a union at Nissan! Union shops are used to protect workers from s*** like this,” Mock wrote on his facebook page to his fellow co-workers.

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About the Author

Mike Elk
A protege of the late William Greider, Mike Elk is a Sidney award winning labor reporter and the founder of Payday Report. He worked extensively as a correspondent for The Guardian. In 2016, he used his $70,000 NLRB settlement from being fired in the union drive at Politico to start the crowd-funded Payday Report while living in Chattanooga. The son of United Electrical Workers (UE) Director of Organization Gene Elk, he now lives in his hometown of Pittsburgh. Melk@PaydayReport.com

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