01/14/2013 05:42 pm ET

Detroit Auto Show Protests Include Colombian Hunger Strike, Nissan Union Drive At NAIAS 2013

Concept cars, glitzy parties and ... political protests?

The drama isn't limited to the display stages at this year's North American International Auto Show in Detroit.

The most forceful of these demonstrators may be Jorge Parra, now engaged in a 56-day hunger strike, who has traveled to Detroit to raise awareness about the struggle of former auto workers in Colombia. Parra and other ex-employees of a GM plant in Colombia say they were unjustly fired after being injured and are demanding to be rehired and given compensation.

Parra is one of several of the former workers, belonging to a group called ASOTRECOL (Association of Injured Workers and Ex-Workers of General Motors Colmotores), who has sewn his mouth shut and gone on hunger strike in an effort to get the company to negotiate. Recently he has been joined in his strike by several Metro Detroit supporters like Chrysler worker Melvin Thompson -- who speaks about the case in a Youtube video. GM officials said in a statement that the company had not fired the Colombian workers for medical reasons.

Supporters of a Mississippi union drive also traveled to Detroit this week to make their case during the auto show.

Actor Danny Glover and a group called The Mississippi Alliance for Fairness at Nissan visited the city Monday to raise concerns about the automaker's treatment of workers. The organization represents clergy, elected officials, civil rights activists and students in Mississippi. It says the manufacturer is trying to keep employees in Canton, Mississippi from holding a fair union election.

Last year, the United Auto Workers announced it was interested in organizing the plant.

“When workers at Nissan began to organize a union, Nissan responded with implied threats that they would leave Mississippi if workers unionized,” Reverend R. Isiac Jackson, Jr., president of the General Missionary Baptist State Convention of Mississippi and chair MAFFAN, said in a release. “While we welcome the presence of foreign-owned companies like Nissan in Mississippi, we will not tolerate a company treating Mississippians as second-class citizens."

Nissan denies the allegations and says workers are treated fairly, according to the Detroit Free Press.

“Nissan employees in Canton enjoy jobs that are among the most secure in Mississippi and offer some of the highest manufacturing wages in the state, strong benefits, a working environment that exceeds industry standards and an open dialogue based on transparency and mutual respect,” The manufacturer said in a statement cited by the newspaper.

During the auto show, protesters have also raised concerns about the recent passage of right-to-work laws in Michigan and union austerity concessions to automakers.



2013 Detroit Auto Show