Workers worry the UAW will export Detroit’s problems to Mississippi

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor
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Still reeling from a decades-long decline in membership, the United Auto Workers (UAW) has turned its sights southward.

Ground zero in the struggle is Canton, Mississippi, where the UAW is trying for a third time to unionize the 5,000-plus workers in at the town’s Nissan plant. Actor Danny Glover was brought in to rally the troops and furtively compare the union’s effort to the civil rights struggle (the factory is heavily African-American).

“With the history of civil rights issues here, it’s real easy to play the race card, says Corey Garner, a 36-year old African American production technician who opposes the union’s efforts. “They are making the union a civil rights issue.”

If the union’s efforts sound desperate, there is good reason. The UAW is heading south because the best hope for finding new dues-paying members is in places like Canton, where foreign car companies employ thousands of non-union workers.

“We’ve got very aggressive campaigns going on at the transnationals,” UAW president Bob King recently conceded in an interview. “We know that’s key long-term to the success of our membership and the long-term security of our membership.”

A vote for unionization will take place in Canton if and when 30 percent of the workers sign a petition.

In recent decades, foreign companies have chosen to locate car factories in the south, partly to avoid the problems that have plagued the rust belt. Past efforts to unionize in the south — in Smyrna, Tennessee, as well as in Canton — have all failed. Blake Wilson, who heads the Mississippi Economic Council, suggests this might have something to do with cultural differences. “Southerners are very self-reliant,” says Wilson (who is a transplant from Delaware.)

Still, some worry about what might happen if the unionization push finally does go through. “This is the best job I ever had,” says Kimberly Ragsdale, who has worked at the plant for ten years. “I was blessed to put my children through school — and two of them through college,” she said.

Keith Scott, another veteran of the plant who works on the plant’s continuous improvement team, says Nissan pays him 10 dollars an hour more than his last job.

Wilson says Nissan has been a “game-changer” for the state, by encouraging other companies like Toyota and GE to build manufacturing plants there. But unionization could change that. “All you have to do is look at the experiences of other states, and say, ‘yes, this could happen here,'” he says.

Garner, likewise, considers a gig at Nissan to be “one of the premier jobs” in the area. Despite holding two college degrees (in health and healthcare administration), he left a good hospital job in order to earn even more money working for Nissan.

The news story might focus on the fact that Bob King and the UAW are desperately trying to save their union (and King’s legacy) by pushing south. But the real story could be the lives impacted by big labor’s last gasp of breath. Let’s hope Canton does better than Detroit.