[Author’s note: I was born in Moss Point, Mississippi in 1979 and still live on the Gulf Coast. As a 38-year-old, white girl, I am far removed from the civil rights movement in Mississippi. However, I have always felt drawn to the movement and those who lived, fought, and died for justice and equality. Mississippi is unlike any state. It is home to some of mankind’s worst but is a place where some of our best fought for, and won, important victories. When I read about the civil rights movement or watch a documentary about it, I get a mixed feeling of despair and an overwhelming feeling to fight. To me, that emotion “feels like Mississippi.”]
For all the progress Mississippi, has made over the years, it still finds itself at the bottom of most national rankings. Some of its more noteworthy un-honors are abysmal ratings in economic growth, poverty and unemployment. Throughout the years, Mississippi has brought in different industries to boost its economy and job market, including casinos. Yet the state struggles to develop a healthy, diverse economy.
The corporate welfare approach embraced by the state is almost understandable. Elected officials give corporations contractual incentives and subsidies to secure a new factory, ship-building contract or oil refinery, but they tend to forget a significant necessity in economic growth: the public’s ability to spend money.
It’s understandable that job-starved, anti-union Mississippi would bend over backwards to secure a deal to add a manufacturing plant for Renault-Nissan. Its desperation led to a special session in 2001 when congress accepted the biggest incentive and subsidy package that any state had ever offered to an automobile giant, much less the poorest state in the country. The news came to the delight of almost everyone in Mississippi: the state had scored a huge economic opportunity and Nissan announced that it would build its new production plant in the town of Canton. This news came with employment promises upwards of thousands of full-time positions – something Mississippi desperately needed. But at what cost?
Nissan started out with 1950 employees when it opened in May of 2003. At that time, it promised that when vehicles began to roll off the line they would provide around 5,300 “well-paying” jobs.
Currently, the Canton plant claims it has over 6,400 employees. However, forty percent of the workforce consist of temp workers hired by a local staffing agency, Kelly Services. A production technician hired directly through Nissan makes around $24 an hour but that same position staffed through Kelly pays between $13 to 17 hour.
Since temporary workers don’t count as Nissan employees they do not get typical corporate benefits. Kelly claims that after six months its Nissan hires will be eligible for a permanent position at the factory but that rarely happens. Scared to leave or join a union, temporary workers at Nissan find themselves beholden to the corporate giant in hopes of obtaining a decent, full-time job and benefits. It is common trap practiced in the labor industry to increase profits and fuck the workforce.
Over the years, the company has significantly increased the pace of production without any heed to the effect on the workers. Workers have collapsed from exhaustion because they aren’t given a break to get water. One employee, father-of-three Derrick Whiting, collapsed while working on the line and terrified co-workers were afraid to help him lest they be blamed for disrupting production. Whiting died later that day.
A frenetic production pace, shitty wages, long shifts with few breaks, sleeping in your car — all that makes for a depressed, powerless workforce. That’s why unions are important. But Nissan has sought to block union organizing. It forced employees to watch a video that suggested they would lose their jobs if they talked to union representatives.
Last Saturday, I attended the March on Mississippi in Canton. Like civil rights marches in the 1950s, workers were joined by civil rights activists, politicians and thousands of supporters from across Mississippi and the country: college students, veterans, teachers, union workers and Nissan employees from France and Brazil, who have successfully unionized their plants.
Speakers included NAACP president Cornell Williams Brooks, actor Danny Glover, and Ohio state senator Nina Turner. The ceremony closed with Senator Bernie Sanders, who emphasized . the severe economic equality that plagues Mississippi, where thirty percent of children live in poverty. He noted that corporations invest in the South because high levels of poverty and unemployment let them take advantage of cheap labor.
But, Sanders said, history doesn’t lie. During the civil rights era, African-Americans stood united and ultimately triumphed against the state’s murderous oppressors and Mississippians aren’t going to roll over for Nissan now. He was there to focus attention on Canton, and predicted that workers there will ignite the revolution that burns the house down.
Honestly, there may not be a more perfect place. It just feels like Mississippi.