I stepped in an anthill at 4:17 yesterday morning, as I pounded a yellow “Union Yes” sign into the dewy ground outside the mile-long Nissan factory in Canton, Mississippi.
Later in the day, on my way to visit workers and discuss the upcoming vote, I saw someone removing the signs along the highway exit ramp, as a MDOT truck blinked idly nearby. Looking closer, I noticed that the man yanking up our morning’s work was wearing striped trousers beneath his neon vest.
The irony of the fact that these inmates’ forced, free labor is being used to silence the support for the beleaguered Nissan workers in their push for unionization is rich and complex. The prisoners are being subjected to the “involuntary servitude” that the 13th Amendment continues to allow as a “punishment for crime.” Many work for free, in exchange for shorter sentences. They come from predominantly low-income households, and racial minorities are disproportionately targeted. The penal system, with its private contractors and its exploitative work requirements, is an integral part of the capitalist system.
I thought of the words of Debs — while there is a criminal element, I am of it, and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free — and how radical his belief really was, and is. For this man, being forced to work against his own interest, was no less free than many of us on the outside. The “wage slave system” of the Internationale is alive and well. Prisons aren’t always required to keep people “at will” — sometimes the collusion of a company and a government in a years-long terror campaign is enough to paint yellow lines down our backs, instead of black ones on our slacks.
With the carrot of broken promises of improvement and the stick of threats and unjust firings, Nissan and the state of Mississippi have been partners in this crime against humanity, guilty of exploiting the fear and vulnerability of the people that produce their profits. In radio spots repeating the plant closing lie, Nissan’s agents have said that workers must choose between happily toiling under their present conditions — of extreme temperatures and unsafe line speeds, of health hazards and frozen benefits, of unequal pay for equal work, of favoritism and sexual harassment, of inequality and racism — or “going back to hoeing corn and picking cotton.”
I thought of the courageous and inspiring men and women who have stood up and said, “No more.” Who have stood up for their — and our — right to come together with each other to resist corporate tyranny. Who have defended human rights when it meant risking their own livelihoods. Who have gathered in the rain, the cold and the heat, at all hours of the day, to advocate for their rights. Who have cared more about future generations of workers than about immediate rewards. Who have declined offers of easy jobs and management positions in order to stay in the scrap.
They are part of a larger tradition of resistance. A hundred years ago today, IWW labor organizer Frank Little was brutally murdered in Montana. Little — who once served a month in prison for reading the Declaration of Independence to striking workers — gave miners, lumberjacks, oil field workers and fruit harvesters the courage to fight for themselves. For this, he was tortured and lynched by the hired thugs of Anaconda Copper.
A century later, companies are more worried about their public relations image. Thus, Nissan’s union-busters are not the bullies and murderers of the Pinkerton Agency but, instead, the white-collar lawyers of Jackson Lewis. Here, the hits on those who resist have evolved into social media posts and unfair firings, rather than beatings and murders. But the culture of carefully cultivated fear survives.
On Thursday and Friday of this week, Nissan workers will vote on forming their union. But they will not participate in a fair election. Like the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party in the 1960s, the union is in an unjust uphill battle. Organizers have had no chance to make their case to hundreds of the workers in the plant, while the company has bombarded them with mandatory videos, meetings, slide-shows, interrogations and speeches, denigrating the United Auto Workers and making threats. Nissan has sneered at the idea of abiding by fair election principles.
But this will not be the final battleground in the struggle for liberation. And, as we remember Frank Little and prepare to go out and flyer the factory early this morning, the words of Mother Jones run through my mind: “Pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living.”