DETROIT INTERVIEW: Senator Kenny Jones, Danny Glover and MAFFAN

By Simon Warburton | 31 January 2013

"Are unions even viable in Mississippi?" - State Senator Kenny Jones

"Are unions even viable in Mississippi?" - State Senator Kenny Jones

One of the most unusual press conferences at the recent Detroit Auto Show saw a broad coalition of the UAW labour body, civil rights activists, politicians, Baptist Ministers and the Hollywood actor, Danny Glover, gather to protest against what they claim is Nissan's reluctance to allow its Canton, Mississippi workers to unionise.

The automaker takes a decidedly contrary view insisting its staff have rejected union membership in the past, but a battle royal is brewing with the Mississippi Alliance for Fairness at Nissan (MAFFAN).

Mississippi Senator, Kenny Jones and Glover spoke to Simon Warburton, about their fight, with some claiming it even has echoes of a "plantation mentality" so reminiscent of America's deep south struggles. 

j-a: Why do you think workers struggle to unionise in Mississippi?

KJ: The mentality is you should be glad to have a job. With the economy they are glad they are working.

We are not against Nissan. We have to ask ourselves with the unskilled job labour market we have, are unions even viable in Mississippi?

Nissan is in my district - I don't have any choice but to listen to voters in my district. If they [workers] are in a hostile environment, and can't speak about it, then it's left to me to speak for them.

In Japan, Nissan talks and negotiates with unions. I am here to make sure they don't treat Mississippians as second-class citizens.

Nissan has gone to try and alleviate some of the issues - because of the pressure that has been put by the UAW and the Alliance.

j-a: The Alliance claims Nissan has had anti-union talks with workers and has shown anti-union meetings - what is your view?

KJ: As an elected leader, I can appreciate the concept of equal time. I could never have won my election to the State Senate if my opponent was the only one who had the ability to get his message out.

Nissan must give these workers equal time. They have shown anti-union videos - union supporters should get to show six pro-union videos in return.

Danny Glover to j-a:

Mississippi is a right to work State - 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 places as well.

Those workers have only asked to vote on the right to have a union.

What we are saying on behalf of Nissan workers in Mississippi is there has to be a new model of engagement with workers that is created around fairness and justice, raising the standard of living.

Nissan workers have asked me to join their campaign. They have taken a courageous stand here - they are sticking up for their families and community.

They are happy they are being hired, but they want to have control over their contract. For them to vote to have a union is a step to take control of their lives and their community.

Reverends Jesse Horton and CJ Rhodes, also spoke at the MAFFAN press conference, outlining why they had joined the campaign.

JH: I believe they [workers] have the right to speak for themselves and have the union if they wish to have the union.

We have relatives, neighbours and friends in that place and I will support them spiritually and in other ways in their lives. Fight on and we will stand with you.

CJR: Martin Luther King once said 'all labour is dignity' and we are here to speak about the dignity of workers.

We simply want to ask Nissan - to simply have the workers' voice heard - to see if they do or do not want a union.

Mississippi NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People) president, Derrick Johnson, also highlighted how he viewed workers' rights as civil rights.

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.

In an email sent to just-auto, Nissan strongly rebuffs the Alliance's claims, insisting 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.