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Est. April 5, 2002
September 15, 2016 - Issue 666

Southern U.S. Auto Workers
Just Don’t Give Up


"Many southern politicians have bragged
in public that they have lower wages and
a more obedient workforce, as a way to
lure automakers to their states."

Workers in southern U.S. auto plants, hotbeds of anti-worker, anti-union corporations and politicians, are showing that they just will not give up organizing their workplaces.

Some workers from the Nissan plant in Canton, Mississippi, joined with unionized autoworkers from other nations, in Paris, headquarters of Renault’s World Works Committee. It has been a slow start, but workers of the world are making the effort to support each other across international boundaries.

It is the only way that any group of workers can face down the transnational corporations that seemingly operate in a parallel legal world. They seem to be able to violate laws and international labor standards with impunity. That is illustrated here in the U.S., where companies routinely violate worker rights and U.S. labor laws and suffer no more than slap-on-the-wrist fines and are set free to repeat the same violations the next day.

At the June picket line in Paris, the Mississippi Nissan workers were supported by IndustriALL Global Union and French metal workers unions, in the hope that they might see Carlos Ghosn, the CEO of both Nissan and Alliance Renault-Nissan, as he went into the meeting of World Works Committee. The demonstrators were told that the meeting was not about Nissan, but assured the workers that Nissan, a Japanese company, adheres to all of the relevant labor laws, including those in the U.S. The demonstrators wanted to speak with Ghosn about the mistreatment of workers in Canton, but they were refused.

A union organizing effort is under way at the Nissan plant by the United Auto Workers union, which has indicated that the issues for the 5,000 workers there are very much the same as in other auto plants: injured workers required to go to the company’s medical personnel who tend to dismiss their claims and order them back to their jobs, management’s arbitrary control over health and safety issues, arbitrarily changing shifts without notice, threats against pro-union workers, and unsafe speed-ups on the assembly line.

The organizing drive has attracted the attention of trade unionists in France, but more importantly perhaps, it has attracted the attention of a member of France’s National Assembly, Cristian Hutin, who visited Mississippi in August. At that time, he told the Institute for Southern Studies: “For me, I believe there is something in the genes of the French people, in the French republic there is something that is human rights…It is very difficult for the French government not to react in this situation.” Hutin, the mayor of Saint Pol Sur Mer and vice president of the Commission on Social Affairs said it was that tradition that brought him to the U.S. and the state where Mississippians work for Nissan and Renault in substandard conditions.

Hutin’s trip to Mississippi was to fulfill the promise to visit the Nissan plant and talk to the workers to hear their complaints and what they hope to achieve through unionization. He was unsuccessful in his attempt to meet with the plant manager and was denied entry to the plant. “They hired security guards to prevent me from entering,” Hutin told the institute. “This is a sign that there is no dialogue at this plant and no transparency.”

A letter that Hutin wrote to Ghosn, co-signed by 35 members of Parliament asked the company to allow a fair vote, to let workers decide on whether to join a union. Ghosn never responded, Hutin told the institute’s Joseph Atkins. “Not to react to a letter signed by 35 members of Parliament is also something totally unacceptable,” The National Assembly member said. “This reflects an attitude of contempt, of political contempt, of human contempt when you consider what is happening at the plant. I believe they can only respond to pressure.”

Nissan and Renault should listen more carefully to France’s national leaders, since the French government holds nearly 20 percent of Renault stock and 32 percent of its votes. As well he noted that Renault owns 43.4 percent of Nissan shares. It should be pointed out here that French politicians are not like their counterparts in the U.S., where, if they take any position at all, politicians are mostly to be found squarely on the side of Corporate America. And, Hutin appears to a bit agitated about the arrogance of corporate bosses in Mississippi and in the U.S., in general.

In its plants around the world, a PR person at Nissan told Atkins, the company has no problem with unions and, in fact, gets along fine with them. In an e-mail, Nissan told the institute’s writer that “we follow both the spirit and the letter of the law…(and) we work to ensure that all employees are aware of these laws, understand their rights and enjoy the freedom to express their opinions and elect their representation as desired.” So, why the attitude of hostility to workers in Mississippi? Simple. By keeping the workers from organizing a union, they can make many more millions to send home to headquarters.

Let’s not forget that the South was where industry in the U.S. North went to escape the unions in the 20th Century. It was much cheaper (especially low-wage labor) to produce their goods there, than New York, Ohio, Illinois, Wisconsin, New England, or other northern locales. That meant more profits, and they fled to a number of southern states, until they found that moving to developing countries was even cheaper than that.

Foreign car companies have found, over the past three or four decades that it’s cheaper to make cars in the U.S. and avoid the costs associated with exporting finished cars here. The answer is southern states, which have turned out to be like a developing country for them. Many southern politicians have bragged in public that they have lower wages and a more obedient workforce, as a way to lure automakers to their states.

In some cases, such as the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee, politicians have offered their services as union-busters for free. U.S. Senator Bob Corker, threatened the workers at the VW plant that, if they voted for the UAW, the German corporation would not invest in another plant in their city. It worked and the union narrowly lost the vote.

The workers and the UAW in Chattanooga are not giving up, though, as they keep trying to organize. About half the workers there voted for the union, and they know that having a union know that it is the only way that they will have any influence on their working lives. They and their families depend on it. VW workers in Tennessee not only have to fight formal union-busting law firms and other assorted professionals, but they have to fight the very people they voted to represent them: mayors, big business organizations, and even U.S. senators. This is the opposite of the response of many politicians from other countries, such as Hutin. There are few, if any, American politicians who will stand up in the Congress and swear that they will fight for the well being of the working class and actually use the term; and then do something about it.

While auto jobs have always paid much higher in unionized plants, that pay gap has been narrowing over recent years, due mostly to the political and corporate war against workers. That war (mostly one-sided) has been waged relentlessly in the name of stopping formation of unions, halting the power of unions in both commerce and in the political realm, and fighting “union bosses.” Any way you look at it, it is a war against workers and the working class.

Even at that, it costs a lot of Tennessee working peoples’ tax money to lure a big company to their state, as has been reported in Tennessee. Corker, in his role as union-buster in Chattanooga two years ago, failed to mention the money VW squeezed out of the people of Tennessee.

As Chris Brooks, who is from Tennessee, wrote recently in the magazine Dollars and Sense, “In 2008, the governments of the city of Chattanooga, Hamilton County, the state of Tennessee, and the United States all collaborated to provide Volkswagen (VW) with a $577 million subsidy package, the largest taxpayer handout ever given to a foreign-headquartered automaker in U.S. history. The bulk of the subsidy package, $554 million, came from local and state sources.”

The federal government also threw in $23 million in subsidies, bringing the grand total of taxpayer money that VW received in 2008 to $577 million. According to the Subsidy Tracker at the website of watchdog group Good Jobs First, the package provided to VW included "$229 million from the state for training costs and infrastructure; $86 million in land and site improvements from the city and the county; state tax credits worth $106 million over 30 years; and local tax abatements worth $133 million over the same period." In exchange for this massive infusion of public wealth onto Volkswagen's corporate balance sheets, the company promised to create 2,000 jobs in Chattanooga, bringing the price tag for each promised job to $288,500.

For the benefit of the rest of the taxpayers of Tennessee, the government donors could have given each of those 2,000 a $40,000 annual income and saved $248,500 per job. Southern politicians should post signs on all roads entering their states: “Corporations of the world, build here! No unions, tame workers, and we don’t pay too much attention to environmental laws. And, besides, we’ll give you lots of money. We’re as good as any other developing nation.”

Anti-worker politicians should be wary. The workers in that bastion of wage slavery are being educated and the unions will continue to knock on the door. Columnist, John Funiciello, is a long-time former newspaper reporter and labor organizer, who lives in the Mohawk Valley of New York State. In addition to labor work, he is organizing family farmers as they struggle to stay on the land under enormous pressure from factory food producers and land developers. Contact Mr. Funiciello and BC.




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