Anyone surprised by the outcome of last week’s union election at the Nissan plant in Canton, Mississippi, hasn’t been paying attention.
To get a sense of how ugly the tenor of the Nissan union vote got, one need only have tuned to WYAB talk radio in central Mississippi, where one caller warned that pro-union Nissan workers would “go right back to” “picking cotton and plowing fields or digging ditches.” Which prompted an enthusiastic “You got that right!” from in-studio.
For months, Nissan workers endured these kinds of racist, ruthless, and often illegal scare tactics. But the reality is, these aren’t isolated or anomalous incidents. We share in the bitter disappointment of the Nissan workers who fought for the freedom to form a union and negotiate a fair return on their work. Nissan’s campaign laid bare, for the pundits and everyone else to see, the abuse and intimidation that workers face every day in communities nationwide.
Now, before you chalk this up as just another blow for a weakened labor movement, or write off organizing efforts in the south, ask yourself this question: If your boss forced anti-union propaganda on you, if you were told you could be fired for siding with the union, and if the company were allowed to get away with this kind of harassment without repercussions, what would you do? The honest answer is, you’d probably vote no. And who would blame you?
Union-busting like this is just the tip of the iceberg, though. The game is rigged in any number of ways – with wealthy corporations employing robber-baron tactics we thought were relegated to the dustbin of history, to rake in more profits while screwing millions of hardworking Americans out of the freedom to earn a decent living that can support a family.
When I was growing up in Cleveland, the major local employers were connected to the community and invested in its people. They were as much a part of the local fabric as the Browns or the Indians. Today, corporations regularly threaten to close up shop and send jobs overseas unless workers accept devastating pay and benefit cuts. Unbelievably, the corporate class has even manipulated the tax laws to reward themselves for running this race to the bottom.
Unions help level the playing field and provide a check on this kind of behavior. They don’t just raise wages; they give workers voice, control and self-determination. Unions elevate labor standards throughout the economy, benefitting non-union members as well. And higher union density correlates with all kinds of positive social outcomes: more robust economic growth, greater educational attainment, higher life expectancy and lower incarceration levels.
But union membership has dramatically declined in recent decades, in large measure because employers like Nissan have become increasingly shameless and dishonest about demonizing unions, making organizing as difficult as possible. They can’t win a fair fight, so they play dirty instead.
More and more, we’re seeing the same thing from our elected officials too. Illinois state employees face regular harassment from the state’s billionaire governor, Bruce Rauner. In Iowa, former Gov. Terry Branstad recently signed a new law gutting collective bargaining rights for public service workers.
And now comes an even more daunting threat, as the Supreme Court is considering hearing a case, Janus v. AFSCME, that could impose so-called right-to-work nationwide in the public sector.
What’s at stake is the freedom of working people – the freedom to stand together, to build power in numbers, to negotiate their fair share of the value they help create. Millionaires and the CEO class want to chip away at those freedoms by any means necessary. For their part, politicians can no longer avoid picking a side; if they consider themselves champions of working people, they must stand up and speak out in defense of our freedom.
It’s time to un-rig the rules against working people, and that means organizing around a fundamental truth: Unions are the key to better pay, health care and retirement security; and working people must have the freedom to choose for themselves – without intimidation from the boss – whether to organize one or not.