Nissan workers in Canton, Mississippi, voted against unionizing on Friday by a margin of 2,244 to 1,307. The vote was a disappointing defeat for those who hoped to open the door for union organizing across the American south.
“With this vote, the voice of Nissan employees has been heard,” said Nissan spokesperson Parul Baraj in a statement. “Our expectation is that the [United Automobile Workers] will respect and abide by their decision and cease their efforts to divide our Nissan family.”
Pro-union workers said they had no intentions of leaving any time soon. Hardball company tactics against the vote have attracted the attention of federal labor authorities, which could call for a new ballot.
“It ain’t over yet,” union leader Morris Mock told a crowd of dozens Nissan workers. “It ain’t over yet. Nissan, all you did was make us mad. We are gonna fight a little harder next time. We are gonna stand a little harder next time. We are gonna shout a little harder next time because next time we are never gonna give up.”
Mock’s speech was interrupted by chants of “six months” – the time in which workers hope the National Labor Review Board (NLRB) will grant them a new election.
“Fight to win, fight to win, fight to win!” cried Hazel Whiting, whose son, Derrick Whiting, died after collapsing on the factory floor in 2015.
Activists who fought for 14 years for the vote said they were proud that 1,307 people had voted to join a union. Nissan managers held one-on-one sessions with workers to discourage them. The company blitzed local media with anti-union ads.
“I don’t take this as a loss because I have learned so much, so much, during this process,” union leader Betty Jones told a crowd of activists shortly after the vote count was announced. “I have made so many friends, family – y’all are my family!”
The attempt by the United Automobile Workers (UAW) to organize at Nissan in Canton, Mississippi, was unprecedented in size for the south. Under the banner of the Mississippi Alliance for Fairness at Nissan (MAFN), the UAW organized a coalition of student groups, clergy, community, labor, environmental and civil rights groups.
Through civil disobedience, the group helped win the reinstatement of fired UAW activist Calvin Moore. Their protests lead Nissan to adopt changes that benefited long-term temp workers employed at the plant.
Pro-union Nissan employees express their disappointment at losing their bid. The attempt was unprecedented in its size for the south. Photograph: Rogelio V. Solis/AP
For more than a decade, a formal union seemed out of reach. Then, this spring, more than 5,000 union activists showed up for an historic March for Mississippi against Nissan, featuring the Vermont senator and 2016 candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination Bernie Sanders.
The march gave the union drive an unexpected burst of energy. In the following month, the UAW gained 386 members at the Canton plant. Despite having only a narrow majority of Nissan workers signing cards, the union decided it was time to call an election and force a discussion about workers’ rights in the south.
Major factories like the 6,000-person Nissan plant in Canton often unionize after multiple attempts. Through workplace struggle and defeat, many workers learn valuable lessons. Many at the Canton plant realized they might lose but saw the election as the beginning of a long-term struggle.
“It’s the beginning of a war,” said one, Robert Hathorn. “They light a torch for us.”
The fight at Canton has pitted union activists against those who see unionization as antithetical to growth in a poverty stricken state.
“If you want to take away your job, if you want to end manufacturing as we know it in Mississippi, just start expanding unions,” governor Phil Bryant said last week.
All over town, businesses put up signs saying “Our Team, Our Future, Vote No August 3-4”. Local TV featured a similar message. Many workers reported pressure from friends, neighbors and others to vote against the union, so the plant would not close.
Then one-on-one meetings started. Thousands of workers were forced to sit alone with bosses and describe how they felt about the union drive. In such meetings, workers were told of the threat a union would represent. They were told unionization would make the plant more rigid and would lead to many workers not being able to get favors from bosses when they needed time off.
They were repeatedly warned that a union would make the plant a place of conflict.
“You feel threatened, and it’s a real fear,” said Mock. “If you want a day off, you want to spend time with your family, or you are too sick, you have to call this person and explain the situation is. It’s like, ‘If I don’t do it, then I am going to be treated differently.’”
Many were told that if workers unionized, the company would take away special lease rates on new cars.
“When Nissan said, ‘We are going take away your leased vehicle,’ everything changed,” said worker Betty Jones. “And the more they were saying that, the more people were wearing their [anti-union] shirts.”
Then, management said the company would maintain an “open door” policy to address complaints. Many workers received long-sought-after raises and special deals on car purchases.
Late last month, the NLRB charged Nissan with illegally threatening workers and bribing workers to vote against the union. On the day of the election, the UAW filed seven more unfair labor practice charges with the NLRB. If the federal body decides that Nissan broke the law, it could re-order another election within six months.
Nissan has denied the charges and plans to appeal. For now, despite not having a union, workers say they must act like a minority union on the shop floor.
“They don’t understand that they are the union,” said worker Michael Carter. “There is not a third party coming in there, the union is already in there, and that’s what we gotta make them understand, that they are the union.”
Union activists say they look forward to a new election. They hope that in that time, workers will realize the necessity of a union.
“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,” said worker Castes Foster. “Once a snake, always a snake.”
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