United Automobile Workers’ Union of America (UAW) and Numsa may be two unions on opposite sides of the world, but they are both united in solidarity with the employees at the Japanese car manufacture Nissan’s Mississippi assembly plant.
From May 30 to June 8 this year UAW led by its president Bob King, accompanied by well-known leftist actor Danny Glover, undertook a working visit to South Africa to establish solidarity links with Numsa in a campaign to unmask the exploitation of Nissan workers in Mississippi.
Mississippi is notorious for its lynching of civil rights activists during the dark period in American history when discrimination against black people was rife. It is in the news again because Nissan is doing all it can to prevent the US union from gaining ground at the Nissan plant.
Supervisors and management at the plant are talking to workers as individuals and as a group about the union. The company has admitted that it conducted classes about the union for workers to learn about it. These classes have been successful because the UAW has been unable to gain sufficient votes win recognition. Nissan has campaigned in an effort to influence workers. It tells them that joining a union is anti-Nissan.
The plant is located in the poorest region of the country in the notorious so-called “right to work” states in the South. The state upholds a controversial principle that joining a union is against the right to work, which effectively outlaws the existence of unions.
The Nissan workers in Mississippi are also paid less than their counterparts in Nissan’s Tennessee plant. The company has threatened disinvestment, closure or relocation if workers join the union.
The community in Mississippi, horrified at the treatment workers are facing, has joined hands with them. They have teamed up with civil rights organisations, religious bodies and trade unions to fight this battle. Because living conditions in Mississippi are similar to workers’ conditions in South Africa, UAW decided to pay Numsa a visit to join their fight for recognition.
During the visit, Numsa organised press conferences, as well as general meetings in Cape Town and Rosslyn, outside Pretoria, which Nissan shop stewards and more than 1 000 workers attended. Because Nissan is a Japanese multinational, Numsa and UAW held a protest picket outside the Japanese Embassy in Pretoria.
It is clear that Nissan will not be let off the hook easily. Multinationals are notorious for landing where the grass is green for exploitation. They also do not give up power voluntarily. They only respond reasonably if they meet the power of organised workers combined with strong organisations in working communities.
Numsa’s national office-bearers met Nissan management during the campaign at the Rosslyn plant, and management expressed their concern and undertook to write a letter of concern to Nissan headquarters in Japan.
Numsa members at Nissan have vowed that they will campaign with the Mississippi workers for union recognition, because the company will do the same in South Africa if the union becomes weak.
The UAW delegation which visited South Africa was horrified at the poverty wages here.
During their visits to the townships and informal settlements, where most Nissan South Africa workers live, the US comrades were disgusted by the levels of poverty and low pay South African workers are subjected to in the auto industry.
The US workers get a minimum of R120 an hour, while South African auto worker earn R57 an hour. Most South African auto workers cannot afford the cars they produce and most live in uninhabitable shelters. The UAW expressed the hope that global solidarity needs to increase the purchasing power of workers so that they receive equal treatment world-wide.
The demands of the Nissan campaign are simple:
• Nissan must stop its direct and indirect interference in the right of workers to join unions in the US.
• Managers who are interfering with the right of the union to organise must be disciplined.
• The company must adhere to the International Labour Organisation’s Convention 87 on freedom of association at its Mississippi plant.
• Workers must be informed of their right to join a union, without interference from Nissan.