As United Automobile Workers Sets Its Sights on a Nissan Plant in Mississippi, Pastors Join the Movement to Organize Unions in the South

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rev. Ralph Abernathy, right, lead a march on behalf of striking Memphis sanitation workers on March 28, 1968. The dignity of the march soon gave way to disorder as a group of about 200 youths began breaking windows and looting. King, who agonized over what had happened, was killed within the week. (Sam Melhorn / Associated Press / March 28, 1968)
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rev. Ralph Abernathy, right, lead a march on behalf of striking Memphis sanitation workers on March 28, 1968. The dignity of the march soon gave way to disorder as a group of about 200 youths began breaking windows and looting. King, who agonized over what had happened, was killed within the week. (Sam Melhorn / Associated Press / March 28, 1968)

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.”

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Source: The LA Times | Alana Semuels