On Labor Day, Americans take a break and enjoy the surplus goods of the American Dream in honor of the contributions of the American workforce towards the betterment of the nation. Labor Day, a holiday created from the passionate cries of the 19th century’s labor movement, is intrinsically tied to organized labor and unions. With this in mind, celebrating Labor Day in Mississippi feels strange, with a heavy dose of irony – a holiday celebrating the contributions of labor in one of the most hostile states to labor reform in the country.
Proudly wearing their “right-to-work” ideology on their sleeve and explicitly stating that they want to create a hostile environment for labor unions, Mississippi politicians have repeatedly worked to undermine and weaken organized labor in favor of attracting more economic investment through low wages and under-represented workers.
“Right-to-work” laws claim to prevent unions from forcing workers to join (something already mandated by federal law), but actually only get rid of small, mandatory fees for non-member workers that cover the costs of legal representation. Unions are required to represent all workers in a given plant or company for worker disputes regardless of membership, so getting rid of these laws only makes it harder for unions to advocate for improved conditions and wages — harder to represent workers’ interests.
What are those interests? In addition to quality of life items such as safety regulations and manageable hours, unions work for better wages. In a state that historically curbs the working class’s ability to negotiate for its best interest, it’s no surprise that Mississippi boasts the highest poverty rate in the United States and suffers from some of the highest levels of inequality in the country. Incomes have not increased by much since the 1980s for middle and lower class people, rising only $7,000 for the middle fifth of residents, to a total income of $40,000, and $3,000 for the poorest fifth of people, to $14,000, while the richest fifth has seen a staggering growth of $39,000, a total income of $117,000.
While curbing labor movements has increased investment into Mississippi’s industry, it is clear that this influx in dollars has not made its way to the working class. Instead, it only lines the pockets of Mississippi’s rich and privileged, who use that money to send their children to expensive private schools, while poorer Mississippians send their children to the most underfunded and inefficient public schools in the country.
It’s not like there haven’t been attempts to combat the incredibly hostile conditions for labor organizing in Mississippi. In 2017, the United Auto Workers attempted to unionize the foreign-owned Nissan plant in Canton, Mississippi. After a multi-year campaign, 60% of workers voted against the union, making their efforts in vain. The average employee at the Nissan plant in Canton makes $26 per hour, a salary near that of unionized workers elsewhere, and a wage far above what is usually available in the area. There was too much risk involved and too little gain in the eyes of Nissan workers that day.
In April of 2020, however, a union was needed more than ever. Nissan temporarily laid off their entire workforce, around 4,000 workers, to stop the spread of the coronavirus. During this time, workers were left to fend for themselves, encouraged to file for unemployment and wait until a later date to find employment again. Were it not for our basic social safety net, these workers would have been completely left out to dry. If they had an organized body to negotiate for them and leverage big decisions in the plant, the story may have played out very differently.
Suffering from some of the worst poverty and inequality in the country, working-class Mississippians need to start advocating for themselves if they want to see any material improvement in their day-to-day lives. In a climate where labor organizing and worker solidarity are vigorously suppressed by the government and large corporations alike, it’s up to Missippians, and Southerners in general, to fight for their own wellbeing. So, while you enjoy the fruits of Labor Day grown years ago by the labor movements of yore, try to envision what new fruits new movements could bring to the table instead — the future of Mississippi depends on it.
Hal Fox is a sophomore majoring in Chinese and international studies from New Orleans, Louisiana.