Workers from a Nissan assembly plant in Canton, Mississippi made a 921-mile trip to the Cobo Center to protest outside the annual automotive showcase Monday. They want to vote on whether to unionize their workforce, and say Nissan has fought them with intimidation tactics.
Approximately 30 picketers held signs on Washington Street, while the group's leadership decried a long-running effort to suppress workers in the state.
"It's the state of Mississippi continuing the plantation mentality," said Dr. Isiac Jackson Jr., chairman of the Mississippi Alliance For Fairness At Nissan. "They invite these companies in and promise them cheap labor at any cost."
Wage increases weren't the group direct objective Monday. The group's leadership instead pressed the issues of holding a fair election to determine whether to unionize and demanded Nissan stop hiring temporary workers.
Although Nissan has not released a number, leaders of MAFFAN, a United Auto Workers union-backed group, said approximately 30 percent of the assembly plant's 4,500 workers are now temporary employees.
Michael Carter, a 10-year veteran of the plant's body shop, said the $24 per hour wages are satisfactory, but that "temporary workers make me fear my job," because they earn half as much.
Six different Nissan models are made at the sprawling plant, which opened in 2003 after the state gave Nissan a 30-year deal combining tax exemptions and incentives. In recent months the company has announced the installation of a Frontier pickup line, an Xterra SUV line and a Sentra sedan line that will start this spring.
Currently, there is no vote on whether to unionize scheduled. In order to authorize a vote, 30 percent of the plant's workers would need to sign a petition. A vote would be monitored by the National Labor Relations Board.
Workers said they had been pulled from their lines and made to watch anti-union videos. They said the videos showed abandoned factories in Detroit, and said they were told unions would destroy their plant too. Carter said T-shirts were distributed that read, "If you want a union, move to Detroit."
Carter and other workers who spoke Monday said they want pro-union voices to have equal amounts of time to speak with workers during plant hours. Nissan is under no obligation to permit such equal time.
"The allegations being made by the UAW against Nissan are unfounded," said David Reuter, Nissan's vice president of communications. "Nissan employees in Canton enjoy jobs that are among the most secure in Mississippi and offer some of the highest manufacturing wages in the state."
The UAW has sought to make inroads across the American South with little success, particularly at the Canton plant. It lost elections at a plant in Smyrna, Tenn. in 1989 and 2001, and fell short in efforts to organize a vote at Canton in 2005 and 2007.
Monday's protest came at a bittersweet time and location for the UAW. Even in the heart of the labor movement, the UAW has been weakened. The Mississippi contingent arrived in Michigan only weeks after Republican Gov. Rick Snyder signed so-called right-to-work legislation, which strips away the incentives to join a union and alters its funding methods.
While the new law in Michigan brought rounds of protests at the state capitol, Mississippi and other Southern states have long possessed right-to-work laws with far less opposition. But Mississippi's other history lurks in the background of any discussion.
"In a state where voting was oppressed and taken away and certain members of the state were not allowed," Jackson said, "can you come to Mississippi with your company and in that same state say, 'You don't have the right to choose again?""
As leaders from the NCAAP nodded in agreement, Mississippi State Senator Kenny Wayne Brown, one of the architects of the original deal that brought Nissan to Mississippi in the first place acknowledged Monday that Nissan had done much good for his constituents and the community he serves.
He reminded onlookers Monday, "we're talking about one issue, about letting employees vote on whether they want a union or not."