Groups demonstrate at local Nissan dealerships to highlight factory working conditions
by Eric Wallace
Employees with missing fingers. A man lying at the bottom of a pit with a broken ankle. Unsanitary work conditions and floor spills pooling across the floor with no one cleaning them up.
These are the kinds of dangerous conditions at a Nissan plant in Canton, Mississippi that drew around 25 protestors to picket outside the Crown Nissan dealership in Greensboro recently.
Robin Moore, an employee at the Canton plant, came to outline the series of abuses that workers face and to draw attention to what she claims are civil rights abuses that the predominately African American staff face.
“People get hurt too often at Nissan and these injuries can rob us of our ability to provide for our families,” Moore said. “We’re forced to decide if we should work with an injury, or report it and risk losing our jobs.”
Moore’s job at the plant involves working with, and replacing, the oil tips on the robotic arms that assist in the development of the cars. Beneath the series of mechanical structures is a pit. She described a fellow coworker falling in and injuring himself. His injury left him unable to climb out.
“Had we not eventually heard him calling out, I’m not sure what would have happened.” Moore said.
The Canton plant opened in 2003 according to Nissan’s website. It brought auto manufacturing to the state for the first time ever and created thousands of jobs as a result. The plant sports a 5,000-6,400 person work force.
The plant was charged in late 2015 by the National Labor Relations Board for violating workers’ rights. The complaint states that supervisors unfairly restricted the ability of the employees to wear pro-union or anti-union clothing, according to The Detroit News.
The workers have faced bullying from senior management, long hours, increased production rates and little pay, according to a flier for the event.
Some of the workers have tried to form a union to protect their rights but have been met with “threats, intimidation and coercion.”
The Canton plant employees are 80 percent African American according to organizers for the event. Nissan’s website puts that number closer to 60 percent.
To Rev. Nelson Johnson, who spoke at the event, this kind of treatment in the Deep South facility is reminiscent of the Jim Crow era when African Americans faced similar treatment.
“Nissan spends hundreds of millions of dollars a year marketing itself as a socially responsible carmaker,” Johnson said. “It is unacceptable in 2017 for the civil rights of African American workers to be violated in this way.”
Johnson and Moore were at the dealership in order to deliver a letter to the management that would outline workers’ complaints. It described concerns over low wages, unsafe working conditions and prevention of workers forming a union.
“Nissan can help because they can talk to the owners. They could not suppress the voice of the workers by honoring their voice and listening to them,” Johnson said.
The customer service representative that they spoke to inside the dealership declined to take the letter.
At one point, a Nissan employee came out to tell protestors to stay on the sidewalk after a few had wandered onto a grassy median that separates the sidewalk and the Nissan parking lot. He also declined to accept the letter from Johnson.
Many of the protestors who turned out to the event were union workers or passionate about the issues who wished to stand in solidarity with the Canton workers.
One of them, Brian Watkins, came to spend his Saturday morning outside the dealership protesting after he heard about the treatment workers received at the plant.
“People need to wake up,” Watkins said. “Half this country voted for an anti-union president. Labor issues need to remain an important topic in America.”
Jared Marsh, a union worker with the Triad CLC, a local labor group, came to voice his support for the Canton employees. He hopes that they will be able to unionize someday.
“We’re all brothers and sisters in the labor movement.” Marsh said in describing why he came out.
The organizers were made up of a broad coalition of groups that seek workers’ rights and social justice. Representatives for the Beloved Community Center, Change to Win, NAACP, Raise Up for $15, North Carolina’s public employees’ union (UE150) and the Mississippi Alliance for Fairness at Nissan all played a part in the staging of the protests. They marched in a variety of cities across the U.S., including Raleigh, Charlotte, Atlanta, Birmingham, Ala., Nashville, Tenn., and New Orleans. Many of the dealerships in those cities sell the cars manufactured at the Canton plant, according to a press release.
Johnson encouraged the protestors to continue to stand with the employees in Canton and called for a “Greensboro-Canton Axis.” He encouraged protestors in all the cities the marches took place in to form a united front to ignite social change.
“There is an energy growing out of this time period,” Johnson said. “We must continue to fight for the workers in Canton to have economic justice and be able to take care of their family. We must continue to build on our legacy. Never be told that it can’t be done.”
Matthew Painter, a member of the organization Change to Win, a group of labor unions, echoed Johnson’s calls.
“What is happening across the country isn’t right,” Painter said. “We are going to keep going to other Nissans’ across the country.”
Moore, the Canton employee, just wants to see the situation at her plant rectified. She hopes to see the policies at Nissan become more employee oriented and the dangerous conditions at the plant eliminated. She also hopes for better health benefits, fair compensation for the long hours and improved equipment.
Nissan disputes what has been said about the Canton facility.
After the protest in Nashville, Nissan released the following statement to The (Nashville) Tennessean:
“Nissan’s history reflects that we truly value our employees and respect their right to decide who should represent them. Nissan Canton employees enjoy good, stable, safe jobs with some of the highest wages and strongest benefits in Mississippi. The allegations being made against Nissan are completely unfounded.”
As the protestors marched along West Wendover Avenue, they began to chant.
“The people united will never be defeated.”
Moore watched all of this while vowing to never give up her fight for employee rights.
“It has been a long road,” Moore said. “Nothing happens in a day. Even if I get fired tomorrow, I’m still going to fight for others.”