How the Battle For Mississippi Went South

How the Battle For Mississippi Went South

In Jackson, Mississippi, in the state capitol, inside the very top of the rotunda, in a circular frame on a large wall panel, not far below the fierce, gilded golden eagle that sits atop the dome, there is a painting of two white-haired men who look like Colonel Sanders hoisting a Confederate battle flag. Not far below, flanked by a Mississippi state flag featuring a Confederate cross in its top left corner, sits the office of the governor, Phil Bryant. Late last month, Bryant spoke out on an issue of importance to regular Mississippians: he urged Nissan workers in the town of Canton to reject a union in their plant, calling the union a “con game to destroy private market success.”

The state capitol’s broad front staircase is flanked by decorative cannons. Their vintage appears too new for them to have been used to shoot at people trying to free Mississippi’s slaves.

Why do foreign automakers now build their factories in the Deep South? They do it because the government is friendly, and labor is cheap. These two facts are not unrelated. The mostly right-wing state governments in poor states will offer effusive tax breaks to any big company willing to bring a few thousand jobs, and they will offer a political environment hostile to organized labor. In Mississippi, less than 7% of all workers are union members. Mississippi has the lowest per capita income and the lowest median hourly wage of any state in America. From the perspective of a large corporation—say, an auto manufacturer—this makes Mississippi a perfect destination.

Now, look at it from the perspective of the unions. Their sole reason for existence is to organize workers so that they can collectively bargain for better wages and working conditions. Yet they have been getting their asses kicked spectacularly. Union membership has been declining for 50 years; since the mid-1970s, wages have gone flat even as productivity has risen dramatically; and the assumption that most people will experience a higher standard of living than their parents is now dead. As labor has grown weaker, hundreds of billions of dollars have flowed to corporate managers and investors, rather than to workers. And nowhere have unions gotten their asses kicked worse than in the South. Every Southern state has now passed “right to work” laws, making union organizing much more difficult; union membership in every Southern state languishes in the single digits; despite periodic well-financed and well-hyped efforts to organize the South since the middle of the last century, unions have utterly failed to gain a significant foothold in the place where they are needed most—the place with the poorest workers, with the least bargaining power, who face the most hostile political environment. Major union victories in the Deep South are rare and precious things. For those who believe that organized labor is the only practical way to rescue Southern workers from their grim economic plight, such a victory would be proof that power resides in the workers themselves, even in the face of long political odds. For corporations and their allies, who would like to see organized labor in America eradicated in the name of market efficiency, crushing a major union effort can be a gleeful demonstration that even average people at the low end of the pay scale reject socialism and embrace capitalism’s gospel.

In 2003, Nissan opened an enormous manufacturing plant in Canton, Mississippi. Almost immediately, the United Auto Workers began organizing efforts inside. That organizing campaign continued for the next 14 years. During that time, the United Auto Workers lost more than 200,000 members nationwide. But in Canton, they kept on. Last week, nearly 4,000 workers at that Nissan plant finally got to vote on whether or not they wanted to unionize. The result would be either one of the greatest American labor victories of this century, or an incredibly disheartening defeat. The whole world was watching.

The Mississippi state capitol building in Jackson sits on the site of a former prison. Like many provincial capitals, downtown Jackson’s homeless population is exceeded only by its population of lawyers. A few blocks east are the Mississippi state fairgrounds, where livestock buildings were converted into makeshift jails to hold civil rights protesters in the 1960s. Though the state’s political elite is white, Jackson is a black city, and one that still embraces its radical heritage. Newly elected mayor Chokwe Lumumba, whose father was himself a mayor and a revolutionary black power activist, vowed this year to make Jackson “the most radical city on the planet.” First he will have to figure out a way to fix the city’s roads, which are everywhere potholed and rutted as if tanks had been driving over them. The town spreads out widely, with well-mowed acres between boxy houses and no one looking to be in much of a hurry to get anywhere. Gas stations sell enormous cans of boiled peanuts. Abandoned concrete buildings dot the roadsides, with the faded, peeling patina so coveted by chic design gurus. In Mississippi, it was earned the hard way.

Race hangs over the south like humidity. Nowhere is this more true than in Mississippi, which has always had a reputation as the most extremist of the Southern states. Jackson was the home of Medgar Evers, and he is its most prominently featured local icon, next to the Confederate flag. Martin Luther King Jr. Drive is little more than a small back road, but Medgar Evers Boulevard is a major thoroughfare. The small, tidy green house where Evers lived and died is now a museum, entered via the carport where Evers was shot down by a white supremacist in 1963. Five years later, Martin Luther King, Jr. stopped in Jackson just two weeks before he too would be shot down by an assassin. “We’ve got to work together to gain political power, and we’ve got to work together to gain economic power,” King told the assembled crowd. “And I believe that we are ready for it.”

The prescription was accurate. But Mississippi’s economic numbers today tell us that the prediction was wrong. The civil rights movement accomplished many of its legal goals, but its economic goals were largely left unfulfilled. Fifty years later, the United Auto Workers came to town to sell the message that labor rights are civil rights. They would discover that getting to the mountaintop is harder than it should be.

Canton is about thirty miles up the road from Jackson. To get there you drive past the Nissan factory, just south of town—a series of sprawling pure white boxes, set against one another for what feels like a full mile, like a tidal wave across the blank green landscape. It is huge. At its southern tip a tall, club-shaped tower with the Nissan logo on top, and parked at the bottom of that tower was a Sheriff’s Department car. The plant is located on Nissan Drive, which is a road that runs off Nissan Parkway, which is where the UAW’s office is. Canton is a town of fewer than 15,000 people; the plant employs 6,000. Canton has a Walmart, a string of fast food restaurants, and a well-preserved courthouse and town square lined with some dusty antique stores and mostly empty restaurants. A sign stuck prominently in the window of Morgan’s Tax Services declared “NO WEAPONS ALLOWED.” Though Canton dreams of itself as a film and tourist destination, the reality is more dreary. The Canton Museum of History on the town square advertised, “On display you’ll see an antique butter churn, a bank teller adding machine, a pharmacist’s medicine counter, and even an old fashion Coke machine cooler.” Sadly, it was closed.

Almost all of the fast food restaurants and chain stores—McDonald’s, Sonic, Exxon—had anti-union “Vote No” signs stuck in their front lawns, courtesy of Nissan. A tattoo parlor and a small handful of other local businesses had “Union Yes” signs in their windows, courtesy of the UAW. I stopped in one, a t-shirt printing store, full of merchandise touting the local high school. “They came by asking if they could put one up, and I said yes. If the other side came and asked me to put up a sign, I’d say yes. It’s what I do,” the lady at the counter said, smiling. “I wish them the best!”

One thing that became eerily clear the week of the vote was that no one seemed quite sure how it would turn out. Local residents gave elaborate shrugs. Nissan spokespeople were noncommittal (while politely denying permission to set foot on the plant property). Even the UAW and its supporters, who you might expect to be confidently predicting victory, if only for the morale boost, all gave some version of “We’ll see” as a prediction. This at first struck me as odd. Many assumed that just by virtue of calling the election, the UAW must have been sure that it would win. It is a once-mighty union that has declined along with all of Detroit, and which desperately needs to prove that it still has the ability to organize new auto workers even in the unfriendly southern states where the industry has relocated. In 2014, the UAW lost a major vote at a Volkswagen plant in Tennessee, even though the company did not actively oppose it; they also failed miserably in an effort to unionize another Nissan plant in Smyrna, Tennessee in 2001. Both, despite the fact that the workers were demonstrably being paid less than their unionized counterparts in the industry. Another loss would be bad. Very bad. These were more than just internal union campaigns: they were PR campaigns, and political campaigns, huge public undertakings that put the credibility of the labor movement on the line. Bernie Sanders and Danny Glover and a host of other celebrities had already spoken up for the UAW in Canton. Press had descended from around the world. Several other major labor unions had sent their own organizers to Mississippi to help out with the campaign, bolstering the many millions of dollars the UAW had spent over more than a decade. Fairly or not, the Nissan battle had become a referendum on the utility of organized labor, at a time when almost 90% of American workers were not in unions. This was a fight that no one could afford to fuck up.

As the UAW was fond of pointing out, Nissan already has unions in almost all of its factories globally. Only three in the entire world are nonunion: two in Tennessee, and the one in Mississippi. Nissan was determined to keep it that way. As soon as it became clear that the union drive was reaching its final stages, the company began an internal and external anti-union campaign of devilish intensity. Workers were pulled into mandatory group meetings to be harangued with anti-union scaremongering. Videos about the evils of the UAW played on break room screens in endless loops. Factory walls were festooned with anti-union posters. Nissan mailed anti-union letters and propaganda packets to employees’ homes. Supervisors pulled aside workers one-on-one to warn them of the dire consequences for their jobs that would come with a union. And the company financed a huge local media campaign that blanketed the local airwaves with anti-union commercials. There were also Republican political figures up to and including the governor swearing that a union would cause Nissan to abandon the state and kill all hope for Mississippi’s future business prospects. It all added up to a very strong insinuation, bordering on a vow, that a pro-union vote would be a vote to destroy your own job. Given the dearth of employment prospects in and around Canton, it was an extremely powerful message.

This created fear not just among employees, but in the wider community as well. The UAW had recruited quite a few ministers, civil rights leaders, and the handful of more progressive local politicians to their side, but Nissan was able to ensure that there was also a hard line of skepticism among the general public.

“Here in Mississippi, every time you turn the TV on it’s a commercial that Nissan has paid for,” said Jeff Moore, a union supporter and Nissan body shop worker since the factory opened. “They’re going out into the community and getting people to turn against the workers that want to form a union… when you go home to your community you have to hear your neighbors telling you, ‘You don’t need to be in that union, it’s gonna close the plant, unions have never been good, they’re corrupt.’ A weak-minded person could start believing this stuff.”

The strong UAW supporters were getting it from all sides. “Managers and supervisors, they’re blatantly going out on the floor and telling folks they’re going to lose their jobs, they’re going to lose their [company-leased] cars, that they’re not going to be able to talk to them… going out to the floor harassing the workers.” Moore said last week. “People are really scared in this place.”

The night before the election, I had dinner at a festive Mexican restaurant with a man who worked as a contractor inside the plant. He was sympathetic to the UAW, but he marveled at the number of Nissan workers he had seen scooping up free, company-provided anti-union t-shirts and polo shirts. “After I saw all those people taking those ‘Vote No’ shirts, I’m not sure. I mean, this isn’t like wearing the shirt they give you at the blood drive,” he said. “You can’t wear that innocuously.”

The vote that was 14 years in the making was held inside the Nissan plant on Thursday and Friday. During Friday’s mid-day shift change, dozens of neon-clad UAW organizers and pro-union workers gathered at the plant’s entrances to wave signs. On either side of them, stretching out to the horizon like a marching army, hundreds and hundreds of white “Vote No” signs lined the road, staggering in their sheer numerical force. At 7 p.m., the polls closed, and the counting, supervised by the National Labor Relations Board, began. Inside a large back room with “JUSTICE” emblazoned over the door in the UAW’s utilitarian offices, dozens of organizers who had worked on the campaign gathered for hot dogs, hamburgers, mac and cheese, and anxiety. Shelves with old signs and boxes of rain ponchos lined the wall. Rows of folding chairs were set out, and someone had hooked up speakers to play classic soul music. The atmosphere was of a middle school dance with only the chaperones in attendance. Some dancing broke out, but mostly there was waiting. When “All Night Long” came on, the DJ—an older guy in a UAW t-shirt—grabbed the mic and yelled, “This is WUAW, coming your way. I want you to know this is gonna be history tonight!”

As the hours slowly crept by, supporters and the most gung-ho of the Nissan workers trickled in. There were still few solid predictions to be found. An elderly local priest with a white goatee, a supporter from day one, bided his time. “I’m an optimist,” he said. “The local Walmart workers today asked me, ‘Are we gonna get that union?’ I said, we’re gonna get that union! And they got a wistful look in their eyes.” He smiled. Some of the Nissan employees, many of them just off of their shifts, sported t-shirts in memory of Derrick Whiting, a coworker who collapsed and died on the factory floor in 2015, a fact that was used as a union rallying cry. The clock crept past 10, then 11. The music continued, but a general quiet descended on the room. And then, a worker in a black t-shirt named Antonio Hoover looked up from his cell phone, where he was texting with a friend inside the plant.

“We lost y’all.”

The word spread quickly. People hugged each other. A few grown men were crying. Hoover himself looked angry and disgusted. “I’m about to sell my shit and get the fuck outta here. Time to start looking for a new job.”

Five minutes later, the UAW officially confirmed their loss. Organizers, community supporters, and workers took turns passing the microphone at the front of the room, giving benedictions for their union campaign. “We didn’t do no dirty tricks. We didn’t tell no lies,” one woman said. “So when we walk in on Monday morning, hold your head up.” A narrative quickly formed: the union would try again in six months. Already, the UAW had filed a complaint with the labor board saying that Nissan had broken the law with its aggressive campaign of intimidation. Speakers assured the crowd, and themselves, that this would set the stage for a comeback. “You don’t always get off the plantation in Mississippi in one try,” one minister told us. “Sometimes you have to slip off in the midnight hour.” Michael Carter, a Nissan employee for 14 years and one of the leaders of the union effort, wore an intense glare as he vowed to do it all again in six months. “People feel like, ‘This is the best I can ever do, so I’m not gonna jeopardize that.’” He shook his head. “I’m gonna stand and fight for mine.”

The final vote was 2,244 against the union, and 1,307 for. That is greater than a 3-2 margin. We can speak of the need for labor rights, and the continuation of the struggle, and the long arc of justice all we want. But this was a rout. This was a devastating defeat. It is an accomplishment to convince 1,307 auto workers in the Deep South to vote for a union in the face of relentless corporate and political intimidation. But it is the sort of moral victory that will not buy you a single french fry at the Canton McDonald’s store that has a “Vote No” sign stuck in its front lawn. A crushing loss like this is awful for the UAW, and for organized labor as a whole. The vast majority of the general public—including skeptical Southern workers who must be won over for the sake of organized labor and themselves—will not delve into the details of the campaign and its dirty tricks. They will only see another very prominent loss for unions. And it will be used, dishonestly but effectively, as confirmation of every argument that Nissan and its scared, greedy, and ruthless backers made.

The UAW, according to Jeff Moore and other workers, filed for this election once they had gotten 1,500 union cards signed. (The union would not comment on this number.) That means they had a written commitment to support the union from 40% of the 3,700 eligible workers. In professional union organizing circles, it is considered somewhere between bold and suicidal to charge into a contentious election with such a paltry level of support. There are several possible explanations for this: They may not have anticipated the severity of Nissan’s anti-union campaign; they may have thought that there were a large number of workers who secretly supported them, even though they were afraid to sign union cards; or they may have believed that after all those years of work they had simply maxed out the support they were going to get, and they had nothing more to gain from continuing to organize. Regardless, the reality does not comport with the union’s official line that “The result of the election was a setback for these workers, the UAW and working Americans everywhere, but in no way should it be considered a defeat.” It was indeed a defeat. A demoralizing one. It will make it harder to unionize the auto industry. It will make it harder to unionize the South. And it will make it harder to give a powerful tool to the people who need it most.

We look back on the civil rights movement now with deceptively rosy shades, knowing that even after all of the violence and despair and struggles, many legal battles were won. We forget that none of the success was certain at the time. During the Mississippi “Freedom Summer” of 1964, civil rights activists were beaten, arrested, bombed, and killed, including a 14-year-old boy whose body was found floating in the Big Black River in Canton. Those people did not know whether it would all be worth it. A half-century later, thirteen hundred Mississippi auto workers who just failed to unionize do not know what the future holds either. Maybe they will in fact defy the odds and do it all again in six months, with greater success. But that is not the logical bet. The logical bet is that the fight to wrestle the Deep South into an age of economic fairness just got a little bit more difficult.

That night in the crowded UAW office, just as the defeat was being announced, Tupac’s song “Keep Your Head Up” started to play. I don’t know whether it was a deliberate move by the DJ or a surreal stroke of fate. The song is a hopeful one, but in that moment, when looming shock had finally turned to reality, it seemed to add a dark and cynical tinge to the proceedings. Many words of uplift and positivity were spoken that night, and many prayers to Jesus were uttered. But there was also the poison sentiment of broken dreams that must be reckoned with. One worker was too weary to do anything but gaze at the floor and mutter, “I’m not fighting for these motherfuckers any more.”

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