What the Nissan union fight in Mississippi is really about

Approximately 4,000 workers at a Nissan manufacturing plant in Mississippi will be voting on August 3 and 4 whether to join the United Autoworkers (UAW). The Nissan plant in Canton is located in a suburb of Jackson, the Mississippi state capital. For decades, the working poor in and around Jackson have faced significant problems stemming from systematic, persistent poverty. Over 30 percent of the people living in Jackson, and 26 percent of the people living in Canton, are living in poverty. But the struggles that many Mississippians face are not insurmountable, unchangeable problems. Rather, they are the result of deliberate policy choices made just down the road from the Nissan plant at the state’s capitol, on issues such as health, education, and jobs.

When it comes to health, Mississippi has the highest death rates in the country from preventable causes such as heart disease, diabetes, and stroke, but has one of the lowest rates in the country of residents who receive health insurance through their jobs. There is an immense need for better access to health care in Mississippi, and the Medicaid expansion available to Mississippi under the Affordable Care Act would give an additional 300,000 people coverage. But Governor Phil Bryant (R) deliberately chose not to expand Medicaid access for his citizens.

When it comes to education, many workers at the Nissan plant send their children to the Jackson and Canton public school districts, which were both graded as failing by the state’s Department of Education. To address underperforming schools, the state legislature established the Mississippi Adequate Education Program (MAEP), which requires the state to determine the amount of funding necessary to ensure schools districts have the basic funds needed to equip students to perform at least a “C” level. But each year, the state legislature has deliberately chosen to underfund the MAEP, totaling over $1.7 billion in education underfunding since 2008.

And when it comes to jobs, Governor Bryant is making another deliberate policy choice that will harm working people in Mississippi: he opposes the Nissan workers’ drive to form a union. The governor has taken this position even though unions have consistently been shown to raise wages and benefits for workers, which would be a much-needed boost for communities with high poverty rates like Jackson and Canton.

Joining a union is not simply about negotiating for better pay and benefits; it’s about changing the dynamics of the workplace so that working people have more control over what happens to them. The law protects unionized workers’ right to get basic information from their employers that is important to their working lives. For example, if a company claims during collective bargaining that it cannot afford to pay higher wages, the union has the right to request that the employer open up its books and prove it to its workers. And unionized workers do not have to leave their safety and health to the mercy of their employers. If a colleague dies or gets hurt on the job, unionized workers generally have a right to have a union representative participate alongside management in the accident investigation. That is especially important given that Mississippi had one of the highest rates of workplace fatalities in 2015, and OSHA has cited the Nissan plant for serious safety violations in the past.

Given all of the rights working people obtain with unionization, when employees organize to join a union, it’s really about self-determination. This is likely why Sen. Bernie Sanders and civil and human rights organizations such as the NAACP, National Organization for Women, and others have likened the Nissan union organizing drive to the same struggles for autonomy and freedom born in the civil rights movement.

If Mississippi’s government leaders truly wanted to boost the living standards in their state, they would make a deliberate policy choice to support working Mississippians’ fundamental rights to freely organize and join together to form a union, to improve their wages, working conditions, and ultimately, their lives.