JACKSON, Miss. - Autoworkers at Nissan's Canton, Miss., plant are "patriots" who "will shoot a sound heard across the world," says Pastor C. J. Rhodes of the Mount Helm Missionary Baptist Church in Jackson. It is the city's oldest historically Black congregation.
The campaign to organize autoworkers at the nearby Canton plant is expanding. On Jan. 29, more than 400 members of the Mississippi Alliance for Fairness at Nissan (MAFFAN), a group representing clergy, elected officials, civil rights activists, the Mississippi Student Justice Alliance, actor and activist Danny Glover and other community leaders, held a press conference at Tougaloo College here to affirm their support for the workers' efforts to organize a union without intimidation and threats from the company.
Also present were a large group of workers from the plant and a delegation of Brazilian union leaders, including Vagner Freitas de Moraes, president of CUT (Central Unica dos Trabalhadores), the largest trade union federation in Brazil, and Joao Cayres, international affairs secretary of Brazil's metalworkers union, the Confederacao Nacional dos Metalurgicos da CUT (CNM/CUT).
Rev. Dr. Isiac Jackson Jr., president of the General Missionary Baptist State Convention of Mississippi and chair of MAFFAN, told reporters the campaign will be going worldwide. "We are taking Nissan's story about how it treats workers to Mississippians, throughout the U.S., and throughout the world," he said.
In a telephone interview, Pastor Rhodes, who is a MAFFAN activist, noted that Tougaloo students have produced a video about the fight to organize Nissan and are taking the campaign to many of the 115 other historically Black colleges and universities in the country. The Tougaloo students, he said, are continuing a proud history of civil rights activity going back to the 1950s and '60s when the college was considered the "intellectual cradle for the civil rights movement in the state." The South has a tradition of people standing up for themselves, he noted.
That civil rights history looms large in today's organizing efforts here. Nissan's Canton plant has approximately 4,500 employees, the majority of whom are African American.
Rhodes said the United Auto Workers union organizing campaign at Nissan is not about "some disgruntled workers who want more pay" but rather about workers appreciating their dignity as workers and human beings.
Based on the South's long history of exploiting working people, Nissan thought people would simply be grateful to have any job that pays more than minimum wage, Rhodes observed.
"I don't think they [Nissan] expected people to rise up and believe they are worth more than how they are treated," Rhodes said.
The Nissan autoworkers in Canton value their jobs, he said. But they want some changes and some rights.
Currently, the workers don't know from day to day what their schedule will be, how many days they will work, or for how long, making it impossible to have a family life outside of work, Rhodes said.
They also are concerned about "scaled back" health care benefits that are not on the level Nissan provides workers in other countries.
A majority of the company's worldwide plants are unionized. "Why treat these workers in Canton as second-class global citizens?" Rhodes asked.
He pointed to the presence of Brazilian union leaders at the Jan. 29 press conference. Nissan wants to build a new plant in Brazil, he noted, but Brazilians are saying, "You can't build this plant until you do right by our brothers and sisters in Mississippi."
Nissan could be getting pressure from others to oppose unions, Rhodes said. Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant recently said that "many organizations" would help marshal troops to stop union organizing at Mississippi's auto plants.
For Nissan workers to have a fair union election under such conditions, the union needs to have "equal access" to speak to the workforce, Pastor Rhodes said. When management can constantly show anti-union PowerPoints, bring people in for anti-union meetings, threaten that the plant will close and workers will lose their jobs if the union comes in, it "creates an unfair advantage."
"It's kind of like a presidential election but you only got to hear from one candidate. Every time the other candidate went on the TVs go out."
What workers have asked for is: if you are going to devote seven hours a day to show why unions are bad, we want seven hours to show our grievances and rationale for wanting the union.
Respect the intelligence of the workers to make their own minds up. "If we won't honor that, we won't honor democracy," Rhodes said.
This Mississippi pastor believes the effort to honor democracy at Nissan can reverberate throughout the nation the same way that, half a century ago, the civil rights movement in Mississippi impacted the entire country.
Organizing Canton could be a stepping-stone to organizing the South's growing auto industry. Toyota has a plant in Mississippi. Nissan has two in Tennessee and Volkswagen also has one there. Mercedes-Benz, Hyundai and Honda are in Alabama, Kia is in Georgia, and BMW is in South Carolina.
"This particular campaign is beneficial both for the nation and for the world," said Rhodes. "That's another reason why the community has rallied around it. If we win, and we will win, it benefits Detroit; it will benefit other places around the nation and the world. America will be true to what it says on paper."
Photo: Nissan worker James Brown addresses the packed news conference, Jan. 29 at Tougaloo College. Courtesy of Chris Todd, UAW.