Showdowns loom at Southern auto plants

Mississippi Nissan workers Debra and Fred Diggs send a message to Nissan that "Labor Rights Are Civil Rights." (Photo from the Do Better Together Facebook page.)

By Joe Atkins, Labor South

A group of workers, preachers and activists traveled from Mississippi to Detroit recently to proclaim what should be a core issue of 2014. "Labor rights are civil rights," Open Door Mennonite Church pastor Horace McMillon of Jackson told folks at the North American International Auto Show.

McMillon and other members of the Mississippi Alliance for Fairness at Nissan were at the auto show to make their case that the thousands of workers at Nissan's plant in Canton, Miss., deserve an opportunity to have an intimidation-free election to determine whether to join the United Auto Workers.

Meanwhile, more than 1,500 workers at the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tenn., will vote in a secret-ballot election Feb. 12-14 to determine whether they want to have UAW representation on wage and benefits issues. A German-style works council may also be established at the plant.  The company has promised to allow a fair election.

At the Canton, Miss., plant, however, a major showdown may be looming this year given that UAW president Bob King plans to step down in June. The South has been a key focus of his administration. Nissan has strongly resisted unionization at its Southern plants.

The vision of "labor rights" as "civil rights" reaches far beyond the UAW and auto plants in Mississippi and Tennessee, however.

For starters, look at the income gap between the rich and all the rest of us. The richest 10 percent of Americans control 80 percent of stock market wealth. Average income for the middle 20 percent of Americans is up less than 5 percent over the past 20 years. For the richest 5 percent of Americans, income has jumped 17 percent.

Mississippi and the nation are now struggling with rising prison costs yet why are so few of the bankers, auditors and Wall Street financiers who caused the 2008 Great Recession behind bars?

Meanwhile, Republicans in Congress play politics with the unemployment benefits needed by 1.3 million jobless and fight a raise in the minimum wage. The poor can't even get in the door. Republicans led the way in cutting food stamps for the poor by 7 percent. Mississippi and other Southern states will lose billions of dollars because of their GOP leadership's refusal to expand Medicaid and accept the reality of Obamacare.

Yet expect Republicans to stand solemnly alongside Democrats this year to commemorate Freedom Summer 1964 -- at the safe distance of 50 years -- when young activists Mickey Schwerner, Andrew Goodman and James Chaney were murdered because they wanted civil rights and equality for all.

Another commemoration should be held this year. The first major student protests of the 1960s began in 1964 with the Free Speech Movement at the University of California at Berkeley, which was inspired by civil rights activists in the South. The Berkeley event opened the door to student protests across the country against racism, the Vietnam War and all the other betrayals of the nation's ideals.

A new generation of protesters is already in the streets today, God bless them, and their voices are beginning to be heard.

The "Moral Monday" protests against the right-wing agenda of GOP leaders in North Carolina have led to 900-plus arrests, but now they are spreading across the South, the nation's most repressive region. Legislators in Georgia and South Carolina as well as North Carolina opened their sessions last month month with protestors outside state Capitol walls demanding that the needs of workers and the poor be addressed, not just those of the fat cats and lobbyists who finance junkets and political campaigns.

Across the country Walmart and fast-food workers are taking a stand to demand a living wage from employers who’ve grown rich off their labors. The Walton family is worth an estimated $144 billion yet its workers can't even afford the company health plan. Taxpayers fork up $7 billion a year to subsidize the low-pay, low-benefits fast-food industry through food stamps, Medicaid and other government programs.

Blame falls on Democrats as well as Republicans. President Obama is leading the cause for the so-called Trans-Pacific Partnership, another NAFTA-like agreement that will drain jobs and lower standards for U.S. workers while further enriching that top 10 percent who own 80 percent of Wall Street wealth. A recent New York Times investigation revealed that the United States spends $1.5 billion a year to buy uniforms and other clothing from factories in Asia, the same sweat-shops that were built after the collapse of the textile industry in the U.S. South.

This is an election year so expect a lot of talk about the "middle class." That's a term meant to delude, disarm and ultimately deceive. Working-class Americans -- and that's most of us, whether our shirt collars are blue or white -- can truly commemorate the martyrs and protestors of 1964 by proclaiming with those preachers, workers and activists in Detroit that "labor rights are civil rights." This is the year to demand that state and national leaders finally begin representing working people and the ideals that founded this nation.

(A version of this column ran recently in the Jackson Free Press.)