A longstanding French tradition upholds the rights of working people—and it goes back as far as the 1789 revolution with the so-called "sans-culottes" who were too poor to afford the nobility's fashionable silk knee-pants.
It's that tradition that brought prominent French National Assembly member Christian Hutin to Jackson last week.
"For me, I believe there is something in the genes of the French people; in the French republic there is something that is human rights," the vice president of the Commission on Social Affairs and mayor of Saint Pol Sur Mer told me during an interview at the ornate Fairview Inn near downtown Jackson. "It is very difficult for the French government not to react in this situation."
The situation Hutin referred to was Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn's resistance to unionization efforts at the company's 5,000-plus-employee plant in Canton. In April of this year, Hutin asked the French National Assembly in Paris to use its leverage with Nissan's partner company, Renault, to pressure the automaker to step back and allow Canton workers to decide, without intimidation, whether they want to join the United Auto Workers.
His trip to Mississippi was to fulfill a promise to see first-hand what is happening here. With nearly 20 percent of Renault stock and 32 percent of its votes, the French government can indeed wield a heavy hand in Nissan affairs. Renault owns 43.4 percent of Nissan shares. Ghosn is chairman and CEO of both Nissan and Renault.
In Jackson and Canton, Hutin met with workers at the Nissan plant. They told of management's arbitrary control over health and safety issues and how injured workers must go to the company's medical personnel, who tend to dismiss their claims and order them back to their jobs. Other complaints range from shifting work hours without notification, unsafe speed-up productions on the assembly line, and threatening and intimidating pro-union workers.
Hutin said he asked for but was denied a meeting with the plant's manager, Steve Marsh, and he was denied permission to visit the plant. "They hired security guards to prevent me from entering," Hutin told me. "This is a sign that there is no dialogue at this plant and no transparency."
I contacted the office of Nissan Corporate Communications Manager Parul Bajaj in Franklin, Tenn., and this is the statement I received: "In every country where Nissan has operations, we follow both the spirit and the letter of the law. Nissan not only respects labor laws, but we work to ensure that all employees are aware of these laws, understand their rights and enjoy the freedom to express their opinions and elect their representation as desired."
As for Hutin's request for a meeting with Marsh, the statement said, "Due to the demands of the business, we were not able to accommodate the request."
Indeed, Nissan workers are represented by unions at the company's other plants around the world. Ghosn told French National Assembly members in February that "Nissan has absolutely no tradition of not knowing how to cooperate with labor unions, nor does it consider that it is a bad thing." He also said that unions are present in all Nissan plants.
In other words, given the testimony of the workers in Canton, Ghosn lied. Born in Brazil of Lebanese descent, a British knight as well as French citizen, Ghosn has a long history of antipathy to unions—at least unions at plants his company operates in the U.S. South. "It is unbelievable," Hutin said about Ghosn's statements. "It is not acceptable. To lie to a commission of Parliament ... is unacceptable."
Hutin said he wrote a letter to Ghosn that was co-signed by 35 members of Parliament asking the company to allow a fair vote if workers choose to decide on whether to join a union. Ghosn never responded. "Not to react to a letter signed by 35 members of Parliament is also something totally unacceptable," Hutin said. "This reflects an attitude of contempt, of political contempt, of human contempt when you consider what is happening at the plant. I believe they can only respond to pressure."
Nissan and Ghosn will soon be feeling pressure on a number of fronts. Not only is Hutin planning to return to France with a renewed commitment to expose conditions at the Nissan plant in Canton—the issue has already gotten considerable media attention in France—but also protesters are expected to stage major public demonstrations against Nissan at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro this week. The IndustriALL Global Union says the company's sponsorship of the Olympics is hypocrisy considering its treatment of its workers in Mississippi.
Joe Atkins is a veteran journalist, columnist, and professor of journalism at the University of Mississippi.
CORRECTION: This story has been edited to reflect a factcheck change. In the sixth paragraph, it was Christian Hutin who met with workers at the Nissan plant, not Carlos Ghosn.