Nissan employs about 5,000 at Canton, building seven models - its first US transplant was in Smyrna, Tennessee. Workers pictured here are assembling Quest doors

Nissan employs about 5,000 at Canton, building seven models - its first US 'transplant' was in Smyrna, Tennessee. Workers pictured here are assembling Quest doors

A powerful coalition of activists supported by the UAW is lining up to challenge what it claims is Nissan's reluctance to allow workers at the Canton plant in Mississippi to have a trade union - although the automaker counters there is almost no appetite for organised labour.

The Mississippi Alliance for Fairness at Nissan (MAFFAN) representing Baptist ministers, a state senator, civil rights activists and the Hollywood star, Danny Glover, among others, made its strongly-held views clear at this week's North American International Auto Show (NAIAS) in Detroit with a dramatic show of unity that provoked considerable interest in Motown.

"We see workers' rights as civil rights," said Mississippi NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People) president, Derrick Johnson. "If Nissan workers in France and Israel are organised, why should not Mississippi workers have the right to a free election?

"In the state of Mississippi we have struggled for too long and too hard for workers to have a voice. Mississippi has a long history of exploiting workers for cheap labour - we should stand up as a community and support the workers of Nissan.

"Treat Mississippi workers fair and just and allow them to have a voice in their workspace."

Johnson's comments were reinforced by the presence of General Missionary Baptist State Convention of Mississippi president and MAFFAN chair, Reverend Isiac Jackson, who claimed Nissan had threatened to leave the state if workers unionised.

"While we welcome the presence of foreign-owned companies like Nissan in Mississippi, we will not tolerate a company treating Mississippians as second-class citizens," said Jackson.

"It is about Mississippi continuing the plantation mentality."

Nissan has fought back however, maintaining, in an email to just-auto, its staff had in the past overwhelmingly rejected union membership and that the UAW auto union's campaign to 'organise' labour in Canton had received little interest.

“The allegations being made by the UAW against Nissan are unfounded," said Nissan North America VP, corporate communications, Dave Reuter.

"Nissan employees in Canton enjoy jobs that are among the most secure in Mississippi and offer some of the highest manufacturing wages in the state, strong benefits, a working environment that exceeds industry standards and an open dialogue based on transparency and mutual respect.

"Nissan employees have voted overwhelmingly in the past to reject union representation, and just as with past efforts, the UAW’s current campaign in Canton, Mississippi, has received little interest among employees.”

MAFFAN's campaign is also being backed by Mississippi senator Kenny Jones who said there was a feeling employees should be content to have a job.

"We have to ask ourselves, with the unskilled job labour market we have got, are unions even going to be viable in Mississippi?" Jones told just-auto. "The mentality is you should be glad to have a job."

Actor Danny Glover equally threw his weight behind the movement, maintaining there had to be a "new model of engagement," and saying Nissan staff had asked him to join the campaign.

"Mississippi is a right to work state," Glover told just-auto. "That does not mean people have the right to organise and the right to vote on a union. In South Africa, Nissan has to deal with a union and other plants as well. Those workers have only asked to vote on the right to have a union.

"Nissan workers have asked me to join their campaign. "They have taken a courageous stand here. They are standing up for their families and community. For them to vote to have a union is a step to take control of their lives and their community."