Does Nissan Believe Americans Are Second Class Citizens?

Sharon Block

Sharon Block is a Professor of Practice and the Executive Director of the Center for Labor and a Just Economy at Harvard Law School.

Workers at the Nissan auto plant in Canton, Mississippi should have a big decision to make within the next couple of weeks – whether they want to be represented by the UAW and start a new chapter in their relationship with their employer.  The UAW petitioned the National Labor Relations Board for an election to represent the thousands of Nissan employees at the Canton plant.  The Board approved the parties’ agreement to hold the election on August 3rd and 4th.

Nissan has a big decision to make — how do they want to treat the mostly African-American workers at the Canton plant.  Over the course of the years-long organizing campaign in Canton, workers and the union have alleged numerous instances of unfair and unlawful treatment.  I had the privilege of hearing first-hand about some of these allegations from Robert Hathorn, a worker from Canton who participated in the White House Summit on Worker Voice in October 2015.  He shared how he was forced to accept lower pay and inferior benefits as a “perma-temp” and his frustration at seeing his coworkers bullied and demeaned because of their support for the union organizing drive.

One way to frame the decision facing Nissan’s leadership is whether they want to continue to treat their American employees as second class citizens or if, instead, they want to pivot and accord these workers the same dignity and respect that Nissan workers are accorded elsewhere in the world.  Nissan’s opposition to the Canton workers’ organizing drive marks a significant departure from how they treat their workers in almost every other Nissan plant.  From Japan to Great Britain to Brazil to Australia, Nissan workers are represented by unions that engage in productive and meaningful negotiations with Nissan management.  But this spirit of partnership has been withheld from Nissan workers in Mississippi.

With the request for an election at the Canton plant, Nissan has the opportunity to reset their relationship with their American workers and bring it in line with how they treat their worldwide workforce. Many members of the Canton community, including the faith and civil rights communities, have joined the workers in making this plea.  Thus, far Nissan, the business community and the political establishment have stood in opposition.  Nissan can forego paying lawyers to come up with delay tactics and can make a commitment to allowing workers to make the decision about union representation free from intimidation and scare tactics.  Or, they can explain to their workers, customers and neighbors why Americans are only worthy of second-class status.

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