A French Government Official Weighs in on Nissan | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

A French Government Official Weighs in on Nissan

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Joe Atkins

OXFORD—A top deputy in the French National Assembly is calling on the French government to weigh in on behalf of workers at the giant Nissan plant in Canton who want to have a union vote without management intimidation and threats.

Christian Hutin, deputy chairman of the Social Affairs Commission and a member of the French National Assembly, addressed that nation's governing body last Wednesday, April 27, and asked that it help Mississippi workers by using its leverage as a major stockholder in the Renault corporation and thus a power broker with Renault's partner, Nissan.

The French government controls nearly 20 percent of Renault stock and 32 percent of its votes. Renault, in turn, shares an "alliance" with Nissan and owns 43.4 percent of Nissan shares. Carlos Ghosn is chairman and CEO of both Nissan and Renault.

"The situation in (Canton) is dire and sadly not new, with the rights of workers seriously being compromised," Hutin said in a recent statement. "Every possible step is taken to prevent the personnel from organizing a union inside the plant. Pressure, threats, harassment, routine propaganda ... Every possible step is taken to prejudice the rights of workers in what is known as a historic cradle of the civil rights movement in the United States of America."

Hutin is right. In the global economy that exists today, global corporations only respond to pressures at the highest level. Ghosn appeared before three leading French National Assembly members in February and actually lied about his company's views on unions in Mississippi, claiming that Nissan respects and upholds U.S. labor laws, respects workers' right to organize and works with unions at its plants around the world.

In an April 14 letter to Ghosn, Hutin called out the man once known in France as "le cost killer" for his slashing of 25,000-plus jobs en route to his status as corporate super star. "The affirmations (Ghosn made to French National Assembly members) do not correspond with the facts," Hutin wrote. "In effect, two weeks after your testimony, management at the Canton plant showed an anti-union video to the 5,000 workers at the site, which we have now seen."

Workers at the plant enjoy some of the best blue-collar wages in Mississippi. However, many of them believe recent hikes in pay came directly as a result of pressure from the United Auto Workers and a grassroots pro-union movement that has evolved in Canton over the past decade. Workers say management harasses anyone with pro-union sentiments. Management holds all the cards regarding medical treatment for injuries on the job, shifts in work hours and production speed on the assembly line.

Workers have no say when company doctors dismiss their health complaints, in arbitrary or sudden changes in work hours, or with safety concerns. As many as 50 percent of the workers at the Nissan plant were hired as "temporary" workers, which means lower wages, fewer benefits, and little or no job protection—this at a plant that enjoyed an initial $363 million Mississippi taxpayer-funded infusion to come to the nation's poorest state. More government-spawned incentives were to follow.

"There are unions in all the factories (where) Nissan is located," Hutin quotes Ghosn as telling the French National Assembly members in February. "Nissan has absolutely no tradition of failure to knowingly cooperate with unions nor does it consider this a bad thing."

Wouldn't such obviously false statements be considered contempt of Congress here in the United States?

Sources have indicated to me that a union vote could take place at the Canton plant as early as this summer. However, worker fear is a cold reality in the face of what UAW activists say is intensifying anti-union activity in Canton, and it could still kill any union effort.

Anti-union allegations are nothing new to Ghosn. Back in the early 1990s, he was based in Greenville, S.C., as head of the French tire-maker Michelin's North American division. When plans became known that a Spartanburg Technical College class wanted to show the groundbreaking documentary "Uprising of '34," Ghosn's Michelin weighed in and helped squash the showing. The documentary depicted the tragic slaying of seven striking textile mill workers in Honea Path, S.C., in 1934.

Ghosn is notorious for appearing in an anti-union video that was required viewing for workers at Nissan's Smyrna, Tenn., plant on the day before a union election there in 2001. "Bringing a union into Smyrna could result in making Smyrna not competitive, which is not in your best interest or Nissan's," Ghosn told the workers. The workers voted down the union, of course. I'll bet their hands shook as they cast those ballots.

Joe Atkins is a veteran journalist and professor of journalism at the University of Mississippi. Email him at jbatkins@olemiss.edu.

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