By Joe Atkins, Labor South
The gathering at Tougaloo College in Jackson, Miss., Tuesday night seemed more like an old-time revival meeting than a labor rally, but maybe that's because it signaled what could be a revival of the labor movement in the South and beyond.
Hundreds gathered inside Holmes Hall at the historic school to show support for workers at the giant Nissan plant in nearby Canton who want an election to determine if they should be represented by the United Auto Workers.
"We have to support Mississippi's greatest resource -- labor, its workforce," said Dr. Isiac Jackson Jr., who chairs the newly formed Mississippi Alliance for Fairness at Nissan as well as serves as president of the General Baptist State Convention and Liberty Missionary Baptist Church.
A men's choir stirred the crowd with renditions of "Look, Oh Happy Day" and "Praise Him" as preachers, workers and activists talked of labor rights as civil rights. Tougaloo, which serves a predominantly black student body, played a historic role in the 1960s as a meeting place where civil rights activists planned and developed movement strategies.
"This is historic," said Father Jeremy Tobin, Mississippi's premier labor priest and a speaker at the meeting. "For the first time we are reaching beyond the borders of Mississippi, taking it to the world."
Indeed, Brazilian labor leaders João Cayres and Vagner Freitas were at the meeting pledging their support. Nissan workers and activists have made their case in Brazil and other countries as well as at international auto shows. Tuesday's meeting was reported live by the Ed Schultz show on MSNBC.
Also rallying the crowd was actor Danny Glover. "I'm here with my brothers and sisters who are standing up," Glover said. Mississippi civil rights martyr "Medgar Evers would have been here right with these workers. … We're here today because we believe we will win."
Nissan leader Carlos Ghosn has opposed organizing efforts at his U.S. plants in the past, even warning workers at the Smyrna, Tenn., plant that a pro-union vote was "not in your best interest or Nissan's" during an earlier organizing effort there. Schultz said Tuesday that Ghosn told Reuters recently he is neutral in this latest UAW effort.
That's not what Nissan workers in Canton are hearing, however. One worker after another Tuesday told of intimidating one-on-one sessions and group sessions with management, each of which is very anti-union and often threatening. The workers said they want their fellow workers to hear the other side and they want an election free of fear.
"The fear and intimidation is so prominent I've become desensitized," Nissan worker Wayne Walker said. "We're tired of being threatened."
"Allow the union to give their side and allow workers to hear both sides," said Bishop Ronnie Crudup of New Horizon International Church. "We're not going to stop. … Allow a free election."
Huge banners in the hall proclaimed "One Voice, One Dream, One Team, Nissan Workers United". Students from Tougaloo College and other nearby schools waved pro-labor signs. "Amens" and applause filled the air.
It was a revival all right, and the people on the stage were preaching to the choir.
By Joe Atkins, Labor South
Joe Atkins is a professor of journalism at the University of Mississippi and author of "Covering for the Bosses: Labor and the Southern Press." A veteran journalist, Atkins previously worked as the congressional correspondent with Gannett New Service's Washington bureau and with newspapers in North Carolina and Mississippi.