RIDGELAND, Miss. — Over the bass beat coming from the band, the Rev. Charles Miller is leading his congregation in boisterous prayer.
As his voice rings out, blessing the community and the oppressed, the congregation affirming each line, he names a new group that he says deserves God’s attention.
“We pray for the employees who are working at Nissan,” Miller says, and the dozens of women and men in the pews say amen to that, too. “We pray you wake up the conscience of those that are oppressing them,” he says.
It is just more than a month since the United Automobile Workers suffered a bruising defeat at a Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, with workers voting not to join a union in an election widely seen as a test of whether labor unions will gain a foothold in the rapidly growing auto factories of the South.
Attention is turning now to the more than 5,000-worker Nissan plant in Canton, Miss., where another union effort is gaining steam. This time, union organizers have help from an unexpected source. Pastors and students across this part of central Mississippi have joined the campaign, championing the workers’ cause. From pulpits, at leafleting campaigns outside Nissan dealerships and at auto industry events in Brazil, Geneva and Detroit, these new organizers have a message: God supports the working man.
The success or failure of this new tactic could be crucial for the labor movement as it seeks to organize new workers in a region that has become one of the most important battlegrounds for new U.S. manufacturing. The UAW also hopes to organize a Mercedes-Benz plant in Alabama, and has requested another vote in Chattanooga. Other unions have their sights on a 7,000-worker Boeing plant in South Carolina.
Any win at an auto plant would be an important victory for the labor movement, which has been losing members for decades, even as the number of workers represented by unions in some Southern states, including Tennessee, North Carolina and Alabama, has grown. In 1983, 20.1% of the U.S. workforce was organized. Today, that figure is just 11.3%. More recently, the labor movement has suffered a series of defeats, losing public sector collective bargaining rights in such traditional union strongholds as Michigan. And as unions lose power, pastors are publicly arguing these days, many companies become worse places to work.
“People are going to work tired, and leaving tired. There is too much pressure on the assembly line,” Miller said of the Nissan plant. “We need to wake up the conscience of the management and let them understand that if their employees have a more pleasant place to work, they will be more productive.”
Miller first heard complaints about the Nissan plant from a congregation member who had served two tours of duty in Iraq, and returned to work at the factory. The assembly line kept getting faster and faster, the man told him, and it stressed him out so much he went on medical leave.
The preacher began talking to other pastors, who in turn began talking with the UAW. “These are people who don’t feel they’re represented,” Bishop Ronnie Crudup said of the Nissan workers. “They don’t feel they have any recourse if they disagree. That is really what’s at stake in this matter.”
The UAW is very clearly involved with the pastors’ efforts, helping them form the Mississippi Alliance for Fairness at Nissan. The group meets at union offices and checks in with UAW leaders before scheduling rallies; the UAW has helped pay for pastors and workers to travel to Brazil and Detroit to demonstrate outside Nissan events.
But for the pastors as well as the workers the organizing drive is not just about union membership. For many, it has become a way to shore up a shrinking middle class. Their campaign, they say, is a modern-day civil rights struggle whose antecedents go back more than 50 years to the days when the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, the day after he spoke to striking sanitation workers.
Mississippi’s conservative Legislature also has waded into the fray. The House of Representatives earlier this month passed a package of bills that would restrict union organizing, one of which labor leaders say is meant to prohibit pastors and outside groups from protesting with the Nissan workers. It would make it illegal for anyone to attempt to coerce a business into staying neutral in a union drive.
But even without those bills, the UAW faces an uphill battle in Canton. Only 4.2% of the Mississippi workforce was represented by a union last year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the second-lowest rate in the nation, after Arkansas. In comparison, 17.4% of the workforce in California is represented by a union, as is 7.4% of the Tennessee workforce.
In Tennessee, Volkswagen did not oppose the drive to form a union; Nissan does. Many of the workers at the Canton plant make $22 an hour, much higher than the average wage in the area, and get health insurance and other benefits.
“I think we’re fine without them,” said Claude Wells, 37, who has worked at the plant since it opened in 2003. “I don’t feel like I need to pay someone to represent me. If I have a problem, Nissan has an open-door policy. I can go handle it myself.”
Nissan managers point out that the union hasn’t won enough support to even schedule a vote at the plant. Every time employees at other Nissan plants in the U.S. have been given a chance to join a union, company officials note, they’ve voted against it.
“The significant majority of our employees are very pleased with the stable, high-paying jobs that have been very good for them and their families,” said Camille Young, community relations manager at the plant.
No vote has been scheduled, and not all workers have been reached by union organizers. UAW leaders say they’re in no hurry to schedule a vote — two defeats in the South in a short period of time could be devastating.
Still, the time for an alliance between labor and civil rights may be as ripe as it has been at any time since the 1960s. Both are focusing on issues of income inequality and poverty in America, said Julius Getman, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin School of Law and the author of “Restoring the Power of Unions: It Takes a Movement.”
“They have common interests, they have a desire to recognize the incredible disparities in wealth and in power in the U.S.,” he said. “The best organizing efforts make people feel that they’re going to do something important for themselves, for their family, for their community.”
Another reason the Canton plant may be different than Chattanooga: Most of its workers are African American, compared with those in the Tennessee plant, who are mainly white. Historically, African Americans are more open to unions than white workers, labor experts say. What’s more, the message about civil rights might resound more in Mississippi, where “people … are a lot more sensitive” to not feeling represented or feeling mistreated and demeaned, Bishop Crudup said.
Dionne Monroe has worked for the Nissan plant for 11 years. At first, she was happy with the company, she said, but in recent years, as Nissan has sped up the assembly line, she fears safety has been compromised. She recently injured her shoulder lifting a 65-pound hatch after a lever to help lift it was removed from the assembly line because it slowed production. Monroe now supports the UAW, and says the presence of the pastors in the organizing effort has helped.
“It shows you have support, that other people are willing to stand up for you,” she said. “It takes the fear out of you.”