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South unites for economic justice

CANTON, Miss. – Nissan final line technician Travis Paras said he was there when his coworker Derrick Whiting was killed on the job two Septembers ago.

“They said that we were lying about what happened that night,” Paras said, referring to an anti-union video screened by Nissan. “I saw him laying on the floor, and they’re telling me I’m lying.”

The company, according to 13-year Nissan veteran Morris Mock, has encouraged its workers not to “take advantage of [Whiting’s] memory.”

“This video said that we should ignore what happened,” Mock said. “[Nissan] asked us to forget. How can you forget?”

Two years later, workers, students, activists and public officials nationwide have not forgotten Derrick Whiting.

Bowing their heads in a moment of silence, an estimate of 3,500 marchers, who travelled near and wide to Nissan’s Canton, Miss., plant on Saturday to push for collective bargaining, livable wages and benefits for workers, paused to remember a life taken away at 37 years old.

“Out of respect for Derrick and all of the following coworkers that have died since that plant was opened,” Paras said to the crowd, “I stand up here… to express how important this union is.”

Of Nissan’s 45 plants, 42 are unionized. The Canton plant is not.

“Any time you pass here, you think, ‘That’s gotta be a great place to work,’” said Ernest Whitfield, a 14-year Nissan veteran.

The Canton plant, situated near the Interstate 55 exit toward Grenada, Miss., is hailed as a gift to the state, generating an annual $2.9 billion to Mississippi’s GDP since its 2003 opening.

Whitfield, though, has seen Nissan officials use their contributions as leverage; he said the “condescending manner” in which management treats workers invokes a “level of fear” throughout the plant.

“[Management] would tell someone directly to their face, ‘You should be glad Nissan came to Mississippi,’” he said.

The Canton plant hires and promotes workers through a three-tiered process. Nissan workers employed by Kelly Services, known as “temp workers,” receive zero benefits from Nissan. Over time, the company promises a transition for these workers, in which they will be paid and receive a few benefits as pathway workers.

Traditional Nissan hires comprise the third tier, but Whitfield said even their benefits have been cut.

“[Management] keeps [workers] at the Kelly stage as long as they can,” Paras said. “They said they’d cut [the Kelly stage] down to five years, then two, then six months, but I have a guy working here [as a temp worker] for five years, a girl for four years and others just as long… That’s why we need a contract.”

Workers like Paras and Whitfield have called for a union, but to deter others from organizing, Whitfield said management “drives their focus back to the car,” speeding up lines and minimizing break times.

In addition to recent labor board violations filed against Nissan, Paras and his coworkers have expressed safety concerns.

In what he refers to as a “Band-Aid station,” a medical clinic exists but is understaffed; Paras, who works from 11 p.m. to 7:12 a.m., said that during the night shift, there is no doctor on staff – only a nurse practitioner.

“It’s ibuprofen and Biofreeze, and they send you back to the line,” said Paras, who has suffered multiple sprains, strains and a back injury at the plant.

The conditions at the Canton plant mark a long legacy of economic injustice and enslavement in the South, according to civil rights activists participating in the march.

Charles Hampton, the first vice president of the NAACP Mississippi state conference, left Mississippi in the 1960’s at the age of 19, landing a job in Milwaukee, Wisc. – a union job that allowed him to retire at 51 years old.

“If the Nissan plant was up north,” he said, “I can assure you that it would be unionized.”

In a plant with approximately 5000 workers, about 85 percent are African-American.

Alluding to the legacy of slavery in the South, former Ohio state Sen. Nina Turner recalled a song by a woman of her own name: “Mississippi God Damn” by Nina Simone.

“When Nina Simone sung that song, some people didn’t want to hear what she was talking about, but what she was talking about was the lynching of black folks in this country,” Turner said. “And even right now at this moment there may not be any physical lynching, but the fact that you would take away workers’ opportunities in this great state to be able to make a living wage and to be able to organize – people are being lynched in their living. Mississippi God Damn.”

Alongside Turner sat Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). He stepped up to the podium, pausing to roll up his sleeves, and introduced what he called a “race to the bottom,” a process in which northern plants continually seek cheap labor in the South.

“They think people here in the South are not prepared to fight back,” he said. “…Our job is to tell corporate America that they cannot have it all… If you can stand up to a powerful multinational corporation in Canton, Miss., workers all over this country are going to say, ‘We can do it too.’”

In the words of Turner and Sanders and the other civil rights leaders that took the stage Saturday rang a call to action for some marchers. One of those marchers was Tuscaloosa native Kristy Woods.

“Canton isn’t much different from Tuscaloosa,” she said, noting safety concerns and a stark divide between temp workers and permanent workers in the city’s auto industries.

Carting her two- and six-year-olds in a red wagon, with an American flag mounted to its rear and a sign that said, “Not a Mob, Just a Mom,” Woods stressed the importance of showing her two children to “stand up for families.”

Woods’ mother is in her 60’s and works six days a week. Unable to work, Woods spends her time managing the Facebook page “Move to Amend - Tuscaloosa” and participating in other local economic justice groups.

“The auto industry is a huge part of [Tuscaloosa’s economic justice issues],” she said, noting local plants’ responsibilities in supporting the community. “…I was hoping they would make it an important economic issue here.”

Woods and her family are not alone in their hopes for an equitable local industry, though. Also participating in the march were University of Alabama students who travelled to Canton to meet up with United Students Against Sweatshops, College Democrats and Vote Everywhere partners at Mississippi schools.

“Grassroots groups,” Woods said, “are connecting everywhere in the South.”

Just 25 miles from where Medgar Evers laid on his deathbed and said, “Sit me up and turn me aloose,” Cornell Brooks, president and CEO of the NAACP looked out to the crowd of 3500 and issued a similar request.

“Stand up,” he said, “and fight.”

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