Nudging Nissan | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

Nudging Nissan

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CANTON - Hayat Mohamed has a cause. "We are different from other generations," the 19-year-old Tougaloo College English major says. "We have such an individualistic ideal, how we see things. We have to get away from that and see other people's problems. ... If we took our eyes off that narrow path and look at the person next to us, we could unify."

Her cause? Doing what she can to get United Auto Workers membership cards in the hands of the 5,000-plus workers at the Nissan plant in Canton. "To be able to voice their opinions and their needs without being worried they are going to get fired ... to talk to someone about safety issues, health-care benefits, temp workers, what happens to them if they get injured."

I'm sitting across the table from Mohamed and fellow Tougaloo student Kimar Cain at the UAW office on Nissan Parkway, and I'm remembering my student days in the '60s, pro-testing for civil rights and against the Vietnam War. Young people need a cause. They've got the energy, the courage, the idealism that tells them they can make a difference. And they can.

Young people are a key reason things are happening on the UAW-Nissan front. The call from workers and community supporters for a fair union election in Canton is getting louder.

The 150-plus members of the Mississippi Student Justice Alliance from Tougaloo and Jackson State, joined by supporters from colleges in Georgia, Florida and Tennessee, are taking the issue into neighborhoods, car dealerships, auto shows, on-campus rallies, the Internet and YouTube.

They are part of a larger campaign that has seen Nissan-Canton workers speak to audiences in Brazil, Japan and South Africa as well as in U.S. cities such as Washington, D.C., Atlanta and Detroit. Brazilian labor leaders and students have come to Canton to show their support and study what veteran observers see as potentially the most important labor campaign in decades.

"We have a lot of talent on this team," says Cain, a 23-year-old senior at Tougaloo majoring in history and African American studies. "From writers to videographers to photographers—everything visual and that can be heard—we have those things, and we have the ability to get it out, and get it out quickly, and let it be seen so people can really dig into what we are saying, and they're like ... `How can I get involved?'"

What was missing back in my day was a real alliance with working-class people. Students were protesting in the '60s, but few blue-collar workers. Most were even hostile.

Now, students are on the front lines, side-by-side with workers, and the workers appreciate it. Jeffrey Moore, 35, an 11-year veteran Nissan employee says he's proud of the students: "They are doing something out of their time. You'll never get a lot of play on that out of the media. They are doing a lot of hard work for us, trying to make this thing go down."

They're getting Nissan's attention, too. After a history of mixed relations with local political leaders, who've been prohibited from annexing the plant and had little input into its expansion plans, Nissan's bosses "all of a sudden are pillars of the community," Moore says.

In recent months, Nissan announced a $500,000 grant to Canton schools and a $100,000 gift to the Medgar and Myrlie Evers Institute. It hosted a free, 10-year-anniversary community festival featuring Kool & the Gang, promised a raise to workers (after a seven-year pay-raise hiatus) and a program to help temporary workers transition to full time.

Nissan's $100,000 gift to the Evers Institute is a key reason, sources believe, that Hollywood celebrity Danny Glover, a vocal supporter of unionization at the Canton plant, did not speak at the annual Medgar Evers dinner in June, even though he had been a speaker in the past and was expected to speak again this year.

"The barbarians are at the gates," says Anthony Wayne Walker, 39, a metal finisher at Nissan's Canton plant and union supporter. "You got to give them something to eat. It is one thing the corporation doesn't like. It is bad publicity. That equates to sales, to dollar signs, so you counteract everything the union is doing. Throw 'em a bone, and it looks good on TV. All of a sudden you come out with a checkbook."

Leading the applause for Nissan are Gov. Phil Bryant and other top pols, despite a report showing the state's record $1.3 billion investment has failed to reap the promised rewards, resulting in a $290,000 subsidy for each plant job. Nissan worker Walker says he knows why, and a question to Gov. Bryant would explain it to the rest of us: "Who are you playing golf with?"

Joe Atkins is a veteran journalist, columnist, and professor of journalism at the University of Mississippi. His blog is laborsouth.blogspot.com; email jbatkins@olemiss.edu.

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Comments

js1976 5 years, 8 months ago

It's funny to hear of a 19 year old english major leading a charge she probably knows nothing about! Nissan is putting our people to work, and will continue to do so. I know plenty of people employed at that plant, and I have yet to hear anything about this climate of fear union supporters are attempting to create.

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micahsmart65 5 years, 8 months ago

These kids should be ashamed. One day they will wake up and realize how the real world works.

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RonniMott 5 years, 8 months ago

So 19-year-olds can't read, learn or understand history, js1976?

Certainly there's a difference of opinion on whether there's a climate of fear at Nissan. For those pushing for unionization of the plant, the fear is real. And given that Mississippi is a "right to work" state, any employer can fire people with little to no cause. That's real enough to keep lots of people silent.

As to Nissan putting people to work, it would not have happened without the state offering millions in incentives. No big corporation is going to come to Mississippi without a sh*t-ton of incentives. That's just how the game is played. So the whole "we put people to work" narrative is, for me, overshadowed by "we're making a fortune on Mississippians."

Essentially, every Mississippian has paid or is paying out-of-pocket for every job Nissan provides. That's an awfully sweet deal for Nissan, which pays its CEO some $12 million annually and posted nearly $6.4 billion in profits last year.

Of course, Nissan is only following it's mandate: Increasing shareholder value. In that, the company is brilliant.

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robbier 5 years, 8 months ago

Meanwhile, the UAW is trying to move into Chattanooga's VW plant as while, and getting a less than stellar response from locals. Their Free Press doesn't seem to be on the UAW payroll like ours.

http://timesfreepress.com/news/2013/j...">http://timesfreepress.com/news/2013/j...

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donnaladd 5 years, 8 months ago

Haha, robbier. On payroll? I believe Nissan has advtervised more with us than UAW. Secondly, this piece is by a freelance opinion columnist (and Ole Miss journo prof). We don't vet his subject or stance in advance but do check his facts. If you'd like to submit a well-researched and opposing column, send 759 words with factcheck sources, your real name and your photo to: ronni@jacksonfreepress.con.

Finally, these really amuses me because I'm split straight down the middle on unions in today's world. You should hear me challenge my staff on stories about them. So, as usual, Spot, you're barking at the wrong squirrel.

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js1976 5 years, 8 months ago

I would expect a 19 year old to have the ability to read and understand history. However, has she ever worked in a manufacturing or industrial facility? Has she ever even had full time employment? Has she ever had to provide for a family? I'm sure the answer is no. So her experience is limited to what she has read or been told. I still stand by my statement that she probably knows very little about the auto industry.

As to Nissan putting people to work, those jobs could have gone to another state. Considering we are one of the poorest states in the country, our people need all of the employers we can get. So we could have not offered the "sh*t" ton of incentives, not gained any jobs, not collected any taxes in the first place.

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tsmith 5 years, 8 months ago

Sure it's a sweet deal, but"incentives" is money you wouldn't have had anyway so you haven't given up a thing. When you add in all the jobs created to support the facility it's a win win situation. Canton, Madison, Glockstadt would still be pretty much rural if not for Nissan.

Nissan has given big $$ to Canton schools every year since opening, nothing new there.

Name another company the size of Nissan that hasn't had a pay raise hiatus durning these economic times?

Name another company the size of Nissan who's CEO makes less?

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RonniMott 5 years, 8 months ago

tsmith, you're right that companies haven't provided pay raises--or they have been minimal for years now. It's also true that public company CEOs pull down huge incomes.

Here's one egregious example of the type of money CEOs are getting relative to their worker's salaries, from http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2013-04...">Bloomberg last April: "Abercrombie CEO Michael Jeffries got $48.1 million, according to the New Albany, Ohio-based company’s 2012 proxy. That’s 1,640 times the average clothing-store worker’s $29,310 in pay and benefits. "

Companies are also sitting on huge piles of cash, http://www.cnbc.com/id/100911328">more than $1 trillion, and the stock market is in http://money.cnn.com/2013/07/23/inves...">record-high territory.

http://www.theatlantic.com/business/a...">Meanwhile, the country's unemployment rates have barely moved (most experts agree that employment numbers are far weaker than the "official" numbers when you add those who have given up looking for work and those chronically underemployed) and http://www.csmonitor.com/Business/201...">workers salaries haven't kept up with inflation.

In other words, corporate America is winning big--at least those at the top--but little to none of that windfall ever makes it into the average American's paychecks, that is, if he or she is lucky enough to have a job. Simply put, something's very wrong with that economic picture. Such lopsidedness is not sustainable, and it hurts all of us.

Also, to say that government "incentives is money you wouldn't have had anyway so you haven't given up a thing," is simply not true. Taxpayer dollars go to support those companies, from building new infrastructure to maintaining existing roads, sewer and water systems and other utilities, to paying police and firefighters, garbage collectors, school teachers ... the list goes on and on. Usually, the http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/20...">government incentives exempts those companies from paying property and sales taxes and, often, it outright hands them money to help pay to build new facilities. Someone has to pay for all that when the corporations don't.

There's nothing inherently wrong with companies making a profit--they have to. There's also nothing wrong with paying people good salaries. But Americans subsidizing already hugely profitable companies at the cost of their own prosperity is completely upside down. It's a situation that we need to change.

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js1976 5 years, 8 months ago

"Taxpayer dollars go to support those companies, from building new infrastructure to maintaining existing roads, sewer and water systems and other utilities, to paying police and firefighters, garbage collectors, school teachers ... the list goes on and on. "

I do see your point in terms on infrastructure expenses, but it also spurred tremendous industrial and residential growth for the areas surrounding the plant. With this growth brings additional tax dollars.

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tsmith 5 years, 8 months ago

"Taxpayer dollars go to support those companies, from building new infrastructure to maintaining existing roads, sewer and water systems and other utilities, to paying police and firefighters, garbage collectors, school teachers ... the list goes on and on. "

That makes no sense to me, you have to maintain existing infastructure regardless.

You can spin it any way you want but Nissan is a postive for the state and community.

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