Twenty miles north of Jackson, Miss., at a Nissan auto plant in Canton, Nissan North America has violated international labor laws in a decade-long campaign against unions that civil rights activists have called "systematic and unrelenting," according to a new report.
Through first-hand accounts from former and current workers, the report by the Mississippi State Conference of the NAACP and Lance Compa, an international labor law scholar, details how plant managers and consultants manufactured a fiercely anti-union environment of fear and intimidation as plant workers assembled a number of Nissan models, including Altima sedans, Titan trucks, and Armada sports utility vehicles, and helped Nissan make more than $4 billion in annual net profits.
Even though workers at Nissan plants in Japan, Australia, South Africa, Spain, the United Kingdom, Russia and Mexico were allowed to unionize, Rosalind Essex, an engine quality technician at the Canton plant, said that she was told during training that, "Nissan is a nonunion company" and "Nissan has never had a union."
Essex said, "It's like they wanted to put the fear of God in you from day one."
According to the report, Canton plant workers reported a number of transgressions committed by Nissan management including favoritism and unfair treatment, retaliatory job assignments, lack of consideration for seniority, denial of bathroom use and freezing of the pension plan.
In an effort to ensure transparency, researchers allowed Nissan to comment on the report as it was being prepared.
Nissan maintains that it has adhered "to the principles of respect for freedom of association and the effective right to collective bargaining outlined in the (United Nations Global Compact) and the 1998 (International Labor Organization Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights to Work)," and that "employees have chosen to maintain a direct relationship with the company rather than inviting an outside party like the UAW to speak for them."
Researchers and workers' rights activist contend that Nissan has ignored those basic principles at its Canton plant.
"Under international law and pursuant to its own stated commitments, Nissan is supposed to respect human rights standards on workers' freedom of association – the right to organize and the right to collective bargaining," stated the report. "But in the Canton plant, contrary to its cooperative approach to dealing with unions elsewhere in the world, Nissan has launched a sustained, aggressive campaign of fear and intimidation to nullify these rights."
According to the report, "Contrary to international standards, U.S. labor law gives wide latitude to employers to launch aggressive campaigns against workers' organizing efforts."
The report continued: "Employers cannot make outright threats such as 'if you vote for a union, we will close the workplace.' But they convey the same message using a variety of subtle communication ploys that have been perfected by anti-union lawyers and consultants."
At a press conference last week, Lance Compa, an international labor law scholar, said that Nissan takes advantage of modern technology, broadcasting anti-union programs on TV monitors throughout the plant, showing shuttered Ford and GM plants and workers who have lost jobs.
"There's a lot of good news about UAW and about General Motors and about Ford, but that news does not go up there," said Compa. "It's an entirely one-sided, propagandistic use of this big brother technique, having these films inside the plant."
Compa said that Nissan's roundtable discussions were even more dramatic and effective than the videos in intimidating workers about unionizing. Using the videos, "captive audience" meetings and the roundtables, Nissan hammers home the message that unions are job killers, unions are plant closers.
U.S. labor law allows companies to conflate union representation with plant closings and unemployment in messaging that is supposed to be neutral.
"The unfortunate thing under U.S. labor law is that they can do this to a large extent," said Compa. "The company can't say, 'if you bring a union in we're going to shut this place down,' but they can say 'if you bring a union in and the union puts us in an uncompetitive position, we'll have to consider shutting this place down.'"
Compa explained, "By using that kind of conditional language the anti-union consultants and the anti-union lawyers have perfected the kind of messaging that can have this effect. This will frighten the bejeebs out of people and so they will never consider forming a union."
Essex, who said she contacted United Auto Workers union representatives in 2004, later recounted that during one of those meetings managers told employees that "unions are just like the Mafia, they are just after your dues money."
Essex recounted, "People that didn't know better were scared, and they're still scared."
"Fear, intimidation and even racism is a part of that plant every day. We go through a lot of that," said Chris Milton a 10-year veteran of the plant who works on the assembly line that stamps vehicles.
After receiving special training on new plant equipment for three months in Japan, Milton returned to Caton, only to be replaced by another employee that he trained, missing out on a valuable opportunity to climb another rung up the company ladder.
"What really got me was a lot of White guys came up to me and said, 'Chris that is some really racial stuff,'" said Milton. "You know when White people come to you and tell you that something racial is happening to you, it's a big problem.
"We need a voice at this plant. I'm proud to work at Nissan. It's a great job, but the intimidation and the fear have to stop. We deserve to have an election free and clear with no problems or anything."
A number of workers' rights advocates, including the NAACP, congressional leaders and student activists have stepped up to support the workers at the Canton plant.
Derrick Johnson, president of the NAACP Mississippi State Conference, said that the quality of work conditions at the plant are important because the workers there are members of local organizations, churches and community groups.
"Our role is to make sure that we can be a voice for workers who cannot be a voice for themselves," said Johnson. "If there is an opportunity for them to proceed with an election, then we want to have a wrap-around community of support for those workers."
Johnson continued: "If we invest in their success their success will mean success, not only for the communities that we come from, but also for the state of Mississippi."
"Mississippi is always at the back of the bus," said Milton. "It's time for us to come ahead in something and this is our chance to do so."