Ernest Whitfield, a 13-year employee at a Nissan assembly plant in Canton, Miss., wants the Japanese automaker to treat its employees with dignity and allow workers to unionize.
Whitfield, a press operator, stood alongside roughly 70 protesters at Nashville’s Coleman Park last week, just across the street from the Action Nissan dealership on Thompson Lane in Nashville and 15 miles north of the company’s North American headquarters in Franklin, Tenn.
Protesters held signs that read, “Workers’ rights are civil rights” and “Hey Nissan. Stop threatening your workers in Mississippi.” Passing cars on Thompson Lane honked in support of the protest.
“Workers are mistreated inside the (Canton) plant. We’re spoken to disrespectfully by management,” Whitfield said. “As far as the safety conditions, they aren’t up to par. … It’s just a lack of dignity we’re having to deal with, and we’re told we’re ungrateful when we say we want to unionize.”
Nissan, in response, issued a statement saying it respects workers.
“Nissan’s history reflects that we truly value our employees and respect their right to decide who should represent them. Nissan Canton and Smyrna employees enjoy good, stable, safe jobs with some of the highest wages and strongest benefits in Mississippi and Tennessee. The allegations being made by the union against Nissan are completely unfounded,” the statement said.
The Nashville protest comes after years of efforts by the United Auto Workers to unionize workers at the Canton plant, which opened in 2003 and employs roughly 5,000 workers. The plant produces eight vehicle models with a capacity of 450,000 vehicles per year.
The Canton plant has faced longstanding criticisms from the UAW about worker safety, the practice of hiring temporary instead of full-time workers at lower wages, and threats by management to prevent workers from unionizing.
Last year the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration cited the plant for two violations.
Whitfield said Nissan workers around the world are represented by unions except for those in the southern states of the U.S. There is no union at the company’s Smyrna plant, which employs 8,400 people and is the busiest car manufacturing facility in North America.
Whitfield said wages at the Canton plant range from about $12 per hour to $26 per hour under a tiered system of employment.
Protests are being held across the region to stand in solidarity with workers at the Canton plant, where an estimated 80 percent of employees are African-American, according to a protest flier.