“Stand up, fight back!” the crowd yelled into the air to protest the Canton Nissan plant’s working conditions and employee treatment.
The March on Mississippi, hosted by the Mississippi Alliance for Fairness at Nissan, brought Nissan thousands of employees, community members and national leaders together to fight for workers’ and civil rights.
Employees at the Nissan vehicle assembly plant in Canton argue the working conditions are unsafe, the healthcare and pensions they were promised have been revoked and the Nissan management uses intimidation to prevent workers from unionizing.
The pre-march program began in the early afternoon and included keynote speaker Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, Rep. Bennie Thompson, NAACP President Cornell Brooks, actor and activist Danny Glover, Sierra Club President Aaron Mair and Ohio Sen. Nina Turner.
Nissan factory workers, thousands of Americans and United Automobiles Workers members from Brazil and France marched 2 miles from the Canton Sportsplex to the Nissan Canton plant to show solidarity against workers’ rights violations.
As the sunshine beamed down on the crowd, Motown music filled the air and protestors held posters reading, “No more threats” and “We deserve better.”
Danny Glover said he will never forget the first day he went to the Canton Nissan plant workers’ hall.
“I looked in their face and those brothers and sisters there, they had heart,” Glover said. “They were willing to stand up. Despite all the kinds of fear-mongering and intimidation, they were willing to stand up right here, because they knew that they were on the right side of history.
“They knew that they will win, because when we fight?” Glover asked.
“We win!” the crowd answered.
Nissan released the following response after the protest over the weekend via Parul Bajaj, corporate communications manager:
“The allegations made by the union are totally false. The UAW has admitted that these efforts are part of a campaign to pressure the company into recognizing a union, even without employee support. Nissan respects and values the Canton workforce, and our history reflects that we recognize the employees’ rights to decide for themselves whether or not to have third-party representation.”
Keynote speaker Bernie Sanders concluded the speeches before marchers lined up for their 2-mile trek to the Nissan plant.
“It is the eyes of the country and the eyes of the world that are on you this moment,” Sanders said.
Sanders said the only way to stand up against Nissan and other big money corporations is for the workers to come together in solidarity.
“One worker walking into a multinational corporation has zero power, but when workers stand together and they negotiate decent wages, decent working conditions, decent healthcare, you have power,” Sanders said.
Sanders said he believes corporations send jobs from the North to the South because they think southerners will work for less.
“There is a reason why over the past several decades large national corporations have come to the South – because they think the people here are not prepared to stand up and fight back, but they’ve got another guess coming.”
Brock Burnham has worked at the Canton branch for the past 15 years.
“We’re the small few that will speak up and say, ‘Hey, this is wrong,’” Burnham said. “You have so many people in that plant that are scared to cross that interstate and come over here, speak with anybody.”
Nissan has been operating in Canton since 2003.
The Detroit News reported in 2015 that the National Labor Relations Board is charging Nissan Motor Co. and a contract worker agency with violating workers’ rights at the Canton plant. United Automobiles Workers has long sought to unionize the Canton plant but union supporters have claimed Nissan intimidated the workers from petitioning for a vote, according to the Detroit News.
In February, U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration issued three citations against Nissan’s Canton plant, according to Mississippi Today. Citations included health and safety violations.
Burnham began working at the plant when he was 25. He works in body shop quality control. Burnham said many of these workers have been hurt on the job.
“When you have a repetitive job that you do every day, your body just gets broke down in that one area,” Burnham said.
Burnham said Nissan does not move someone to another job to help lessen further damage to the injury.
“They’ll give you some biofreeze and Advil and send you back to work saying nothing’s wrong with you,” Jeffrey Moore, Burnham’s coworker, added.
Video: Grace Miller
Down in Canton, Burnham said the Nissan plant would put people back in the job that gave them the injury in the first place. If an injured workers were to try and talk to management about the problem, Burnham said management would tell the employee to quit.
“Well, if you don’t like it, there’s the door,” he said Nissan management tells employees. “That’s no way to treat anybody.”
When problems in the workplace arise, Burnham said he has gone to human resources to talk, but they gave him a phone number to call instead. Burnham said he has called the human resources contacts, but it did not lead to any changes.
Jeffrey Moore, Burnham’s coworker in body shop quality control, said that regardless of the issues in the plant, he still enjoys his job mainly because of his coworkers. Moore has also been with the company for 15 years. Moore said he works 52 hours per-week on average.
Moore said the benefits he was promised when he first started working have been revoked.
He said that in 2003, Nissan changed the 401(k)-matching program, and in 2007, Nissan froze his pension, so he will not have any insurance when he retires.
“When they took it from us, they told us they were taking it because of the financial condition of the country and they were going to revisit after everything got better, but they never revisited it,” Moore said.
The Huffington Post reported the state gave Nissan $1.33 billion in tax breaks, according to a study by the United Automobiles Workers. In return, Nissan promised to provide Mississippians with well-paid, full-time jobs, according to the Huffington Post.
Moore said marching is not necessarily about increasing his current wages, but about looking toward the community’s future.
Burnham said he agrees with Moore that their pay isn’t the issue, but rather the ability to retire.
“The thing I hate that Nissan does is that they always act like it’s about pay,” Burnham said. “We make good money – we have to work a lot of overtime to make good money – but they act like we’re down here marching for pay.
“We’re down here marching for our future,” Burnham said.