Nina Turner: Right-to-Work Laws Are Weakening the Middle Class and the Economy
On Saturday, over 1,000 protesters will rally outside a Nissan assembly plant in Canton, Mississippi—a demonstration that is the culmination of years of corporate policy intended to dissuade workers from unionizing. Marching alongside employees, activists, and politicians alike will be Nina Turner, the Democratic leader and former Ohio state senator who has spent decades advocating for everyday Americans. During her time in the Ohio Senate, Turner fought for legislation that would level the playing field for women and men—including introducing the “Viagra Bill,” which would subject men to the same scrupulous levels of regulations women face over their reproductive choices—and her dedication has continued into her post-legislative role.
The Canton plant first opened in 2003 and Mississippi residents hoped it would be a boon to their local economy. Though Nissan says the factory has added $2.9 billion each year to the state’s economy, and created 25,000 jobs, the state still remains the poorest in the nation and workers have spent nearly a decade and a half fighting for better conditions and fairer treatment. The Japanese automaker is currently facing fines at several of its U.S. plants for safety violations—including the one in Canton—and workers say the company has tried to hinder their attempts to join the United Automobile Workers union (it doesn’t help that Mississippi is a right-to-work state, meaning the law gives workers the option not to join a union, or allows them not to pay union dues if they do). And because 80 percent of the plant’s employees are African American, protesters argue that not only is it a fairness and safety issue—the plant’s difficult relationship with its workers is a civil rights one.
“I’ve had a long history with the UAW, particularly in my home state of Ohio,” Turner recently told Glamour. “In places like Ohio [and 27 other states, including Mississippi], these anti-worker’s rights bills were filed back in 2011. It was a really big deal in Ohio and motivated me to cement my relationship—or ’street cred,’ if you will— with the labor community in my stance to protect their right to collectively bargain.”
Joining Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, Congressman Bennie Thompson (D-MS), as well as autoworkers and activists, Turner will use Saturday's demonstration to stand up for employees’ rights. Ahead of the Nissan rally, Glamour spoke to Turner, who is on the board of Sanders' Our Revolution grassroots coalition, about her support of labor movements, how better conditions can benefit all workers, and her hopes for the future of the Democratic party.
Glamour: I wanted to talk a little bit about the rally in Mississippi. You’ll be joining Senator Sanders and Nissan workers as they rally against unfair labor conditions and corporate policy that dissuades workers from unionizing. Can you tell me a little more about your role in the march and how everything came together?
Nina Turner: We’re there to let workers at this particular Nissan plant in Mississippi know that they are not alone. Workers should have a right to sit across from management to collectively bargain about their work conditions, their wages, and the future direction of the company. To me, that’s just a humane thing to do. It is unacceptable in the 21st century to have companies not want to do that with their employees and create a great work environment. The better a work environment is, the better it is for the employer—not just the employee.
Glamour: There is a trend now in dissuading people from unionizing, and more right-to-work policies, like those in Ohio and Wisconsin, are being passed at the state level. What do you think this implicates for workers across the country?
NT: It’s a dangerous trend. Workers' wages are not keeping up with inflation. Their wages are not on pace with the amount of work that they do. We work harder and longer in this country and still people’s wages are not keeping up with that. Labor unions have a long history of benefitting all workers, even those who are not members of unions, because everyone's wages go up. If we don’t increase membership—and membership in labor unions is going down because of the attacks against organized labor—it’s something every single American, whether they’re officially in a union or not, should be concerned about. It’s a spiral. It’s a weakening of the middle class and our economy can’t sustain that.
For the workers and their families, being able to bring home a living wage helps their families and, by extension, helps our economy. Seventy percent of our economy is consumer-based. We know that when lower- and middle-class families have money and disposable income, they spend it. That puts money back into the economy. It’s a win-win for everybody: Not just for the individual, not just production at a specific company (like Nissan), but for the greater good. I look at what’s happening at plants like Nissan, and what is happening across the country at the hands of some of my Republican sisters and brothers, and it becomes a moral question. Are we the type of country that will make progress and move forward, or are we going to go backward—and take middle- and working-class families with us? The 1 percent and the 10 percent are doing just fine, but the people who are bearing the brunt of this economy are the ones who suffer.
Glamour: For women who are in these kinds of jobs, there is also the added factor of covering child care. What kind of effect do these working conditions have on them?
NT: If a mother or a caregiver does not have a job that pays a living wage and they cannot afford child care, that is unacceptable. I’ve talked to my constituents over the years and child care can almost bankrupt a family, even a two-parent household in which both parents are working. That keeps a parent from being at ease and it really stifles the social and economic growth of a family. Women are hit hard across the board, but particularly in homes where the mother is the head of the household and the only wage-earner. It hurts her, and it hurts her children. I’m always amazed to hear my more conservative colleagues talking about how they care about life. They’re pro-life, but when it comes down to safe work environments that allow for unions, being able to pay for child care, having family leave—they don’t care about any of that. That’s where I argue that they’re not pro-life, they’re pro-birth.
Glamour: There's a lot of grassroots activism happening across the country. Do you see a connection between these actions, Saturday’s Nissan rally, and what you and Senator Sanders are doing with Our Revolution?
NT: I absolutely do. People are awake. That hashtag “#staywoke” is real, and I hope it continues. My hope for this country and the activists is that they never, ever go back to sleep, and they keep fighting for social justice, equality, and decency. It reminds me a lot of President Franklin Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms. Being a progressive himself, he was talking about the fact that we should provide jobs for everyone who wants one. People do have a right to live in decent housing. They do have a right to education. FDR was preaching this gospel in the ‘30s, and Dr. Martin Luther King did the same thing in the 1960s with the Poor People’s March on Washington. Folks in this country have these rights, and it’s the job of this country to answer this call. We need groups like the Women’s March reminding elected officials that they have a responsibility to create pathways of opportunity, and if—and when—they aren’t doing that, everyday people are going to put a little “extra” on their ordinary and extraordinary things will happen. At this moment, the not-so-quiet voices rumbling across the country and the world are saying we absolutely and unequivocally deserve better.
Another point I want to make is that it’s important for women to understand that it’s bad enough that we don’t make dollar-for-dollar what men do, but when you distill that down to women of color, our Latinas and our African American women, it’s even less than that 78 cents. When you have mega-corporations that have record profits, but they don’t want to share even a little bit of that with their workers, we are actually putting our communities at peril. What happens to women happens to the entire nation. People work hard. But when you’re working long hours, you don’t get to spend time with your kids, you don’t get a chance to take a vacation every now and then, you don’t get a chance to make a big purchase (which helps the economy). There’s something wrong with that. This isn’t about wages, this about quality of life. If workers are overworked, or—like at this Nissan plant—companies hire temps at low wages, this fundamentally comes down to the quality of life for a person. It’s bigger than wages. They should be able to spend time with their families. And if they’re single, they should be able to have fun and not spend every day of their life working 12 to 15 hours a day and never get a chance to take care of their well-being. To me, that’s part of living a good life.
Glamour: On Wednesday, March 8, activists and feminist leaders are calling for women to go on strike to protest the current administration and years of policy that have kept women from being equal members of society. Will you be participating in any demonstrations?
NT: You know, I’m not sure. I can’t say definitively if I will be there physically, but I will definitely be there in spirit. I’m glad to see people coming together like this, and we have to keep this unity going. What happens to one directly happens to all indirectly. It may be Nissan workers today, but it could be somebody else, somewhere else tomorrow. We have an obligation to each other to not only push our politicians, but to push companies to do right by their workers. They wouldn’t even have successful companies without their workers. They are the glue that keeps things together. How, in the 21st century, we have mega-corporations that have lost sight of that boggles my mind.
Glamour: Last week, a new DNC chair was selected. I know you’ve been involved with the DNC at the Ohio state level. What are your thoughts on new Chair Tom Perez and Deputy Chair Keith Ellison? How can they keep up the grassroots efforts that are going on and fulfill the hopes of more progressive Democrats?
NT: I am a member of the DNC from Ohio so I was there in living color this past weekend. I supported Congressman Keith Ellison, and I am disappointed he did not win. I saw forces work to malign Congressman Ellison’s credibility, and I saw a tinge of Islamophobia within my own party, which causes me great dismay. I do hope that Chairman Perez and his decision to make Congressman Ellison the deputy chair, a position that does not really exist, is real. That relationship is going to have to be real for progressives who were disheartened by the direction the DNC took in 2016 during the presidential election and the direction they see the DNC taking now. I want to be clear—I want Chairman Perez to be successful. If he is successful in making sure the DNC recaptures its integrity, that is a good thing. And by integrity, I mean making sure what happened to Bernie Sanders doesn’t happen to another candidate, where you have staffers and even the chairperson putting their thumbs on the scale for one candidate in a primary over the other. We really are going to have to answer the cries of everyday women and men who are calling out for elected leaders to do something different. They want to be treated fairly and they need a political party who represents them. It’s shameful that the elites basically have one-and-a-half political parties. Working class men and women have zero parties—or they have half a party. That’s exactly what progressives are upset about. I hope that the DNC can take a different turn and restore the party’s integrity. I’m hopeful, but I won’t hold my breath.
Glamour: There's some movement online to recruit you to run for governor of Ohio. Would you have any interest in that—or running for any office again?
NT: We’ll see. I’m keeping my options open at this point, but I’m very humbled by the fact that grassroots efforts are rising up all over the country, but particularly in my home state of Ohio. I barely have words. To know that so many people across the state, from the rural areas to the urban areas, see something in my leadership and really believe I am someone for the people means a lot to me. That’s how I want people to see me and my public service. Even if they disagree with me, I want them to know I was authentic in my public service. I stand for all people even if it causes me political heartburn—and I’m going to do that no matter what my future holds.
Glamour: With the current administration just weeks into their presidency and the Republicans in control of both chambers of Congress, what are your hopes for Our Revolution and what it can achieve over the next four years?
NT: My hope is that we help progressives win at local and state levels of government. Democrats have lost over 1,000 seats since 2009. It’s very easy for people to get up in arms about Mr. Trump, but the fact of the matter is that the Democrats took their eye off the ball starting in 2009. I see Our Revolution as being a great champion on that state and local space, because we have to get more progressives elected to those levels of government. Though we don’t control the Congress or the presidency, and we are certainly outnumbered on the state level, there is a chance for us starting this year, and in 2018, to win back some of those state seats. There are states that have started initiatives to do away with Citizen’s United. The overflow of big money in politics drowns out the voices of everyday people. That is part of the conundrum in this country: The more money you have the more speech you have. That leaves everyday people out of the equation. I also see local areas trying to push for universal health care and a single payer system. I’m so inspired by states that do that, and that’s where Our Revolution can do its greatest work—to support those people who wouldn’t normally have the support of establishment types to run and help them win.
In terms of President Trump, I really do hope that he does accomplish some of the things he said on the campaign trail. If he is willing to make investments in infrastructure, but not on the backs of the middle class and the working class, and put people back to work, that would be a good thing. If he’s serious about making Obamacare better, and not pulling the rug out from 20 million Americans who benefit from it, that would be a good thing too. I would love to see more investment to help our veterans. He’s talking about investing in the military—I imagine he wants to invest on the war side, but what we really need is to take care of our veterans, and invest in the VA hospitals, provide better mental health treatment, and help them find housing. That is a stain on America for all of us—Republican and Democrat. No administration in recent times has been able to tackle the needs of our veterans. On that, I do want to see him successful. But in terms of his travel ban and immigration policy, I don’t want to see him successful.
That is why we need this rising. We need people to fight back. So many people are depressed, and they’ve become preoccupied with the negatives of this presidency. That can cripple people mentally. We’ve had to overcome a lot in this country to become a nation of progress. We still have a lot of progress to be made. My role is to remind people that everyday people can make a difference. And if we get people out there doing things to make this country a better place, we can bring change. Decide what your role is going to be, whether it’s helping a candidate, fighting for an issue, or running for office yourself. We have the power to overcome these challenges and keep moving as a nation—and Mr. Trump does not control that.