Danny Glover’s new role: Nissan’s celebrity nemesis ‘Lethal Weapon’ star helps UAW organizing effort

Danny Glover’s new role: Nissan’s celebrity nemesis
‘Lethal Weapon’ star helps UAW organizing effort
Lindsay Chappell
Automotive News | April 8, 2013 – 12:01 am EST

NASHVILLE — When Hollywood star Danny Glover recently wrapped up shooting his latest movie in Charlotte, N.C., he hopped on a plane and flew to Mississippi to become a gadfly to Nissan Motor Co.

Glover, famous from movie and TV roles in the Lethal Weapon series, Witness, “Lonesome Dove” and others, has decided to devote his spare time to organizing Nissan’s U.S. assembly plants for the UAW, starting with its factory in Canton, Miss.

That’s not something Nissan wants.

Glover doesn’t care. It has become his mission.

Moreover, the movie star’s mission represents a departure for the UAW as it tries for the third time to organize Nissan in the United States. This time, instead of going straight to the workers itself, the UAW is relying on a partnership between Glover and a network of social activist college students — working with local community groups — to raise union interest among workers.

“This is something I feel very strongly about,” Glover said during a recent visit to Nashville, home of Nissan’s sales, marketing and manufacturing headquarters for the Americas region. “The whole civil rights history of that region of Mississippi is very important to me. To me, this union organizing drive is a part of that history.”

Glover describes himself as a lifelong union activist, following in the footsteps of his father, who remained active in the postal workers’ union until his death at age 82. Danny Glover’s own off-screen resume includes helping labor drives for the United Farm Workers, textile workers and the food and hotel services union Unite Here. Three years ago, while participating in a Service Employees International Union protest at the Maryland offices of France’s food services giant Sodexo, Glover was arrested and taken away in handcuffs.

Helping the UAW is not strange for Glover. But relying on a Hollywood star to organize an auto plant qualifies as unusual for the union.

For the Nissan campaign, Glover is not merely lending his name to posters or giving his famous face to photo ops. He is traveling the country to spark student rallies against Nissan’s nonunionism. In January, he joined the UAW at a press conference during the Detroit auto show.

He says he was approached to help organize Nissan’s Mississippi workers by UAW International President Bob King after the two of them participated in a civil rights memorial presentation together there last year.

“I heard about some things going on at Nissan that I didn’t like,” Glover told Automotive News, without specifying what they were. “As a young kid, I remembered that area around Jackson, Miss., as being central to the civil rights movement, and I wanted to be involved.”

Pro-union organizers argue that Nissan has taken steps to make workers shun information about unionizing. A Nissan spokesman has said that the company prohibits all types of soliciting, whether union-related or not, in the plants.

In late March, Glover accompanied a group of Mississippi college students to Nashville to help enlist college students there as Nissan-organizing volunteers. Wearing brown corduroys, a sport coat and a baseball cap, Glover sat silently on an auditorium stage at a student rally at Tennessee State University. After a parade of Nissan workers, union organizers and student volunteers told the audience about the importance of unionizing Nissan’s U.S. operations, Glover rose and took the microphone.

“It’s going to take all of us to help them,” he told the audience, referring to the approximately 10,000 hourly workers at Nissan’s assembly plants in Canton and Smyrna, Tenn. “They have the right to have a union negotiate for them. I’m proud of these young students.”

Until now, bringing labor union representation to workers at Nissan — or any other non-Detroit 3 automaker in the United States for that matter — has been a fruitless mission.

Nissan workers have built cars and trucks in the United States for 30 years without union representation. Since the Japanese auto industry began manufacturing here in 1982, the UAW has been unable to organize workers at any plant that was not affiliated with the Detroit 3. Over those three decades, as first Honda and then Nissan, Toyota, Subaru, BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Hyundai, Kia and most recently Volkswagen launched more than a dozen nonunion assembly and engine plants, the UAW has requested only two worker elections at any of them. Both votes were at Nissan’s Smyrna plant, and Smyrna workers rejected UAW representation both times — the second time, 12 years ago, by a wider margin than the first.

While Glover talked with college students in Nashville, Nissan Motor Co. CEO Carlos Ghosn was speaking with reporters at the New York auto show. Responding to questions about the UAW organizing drive in Mississippi, Ghosn said only that it was not Nissan’s first organizing campaign and probably would not be the last and that workers would decide for themselves whether to unionize.

But this campaign, with Glover’s high-profile involvement, represents a change in strategy for the UAW.

This time, the union is organizing from the outside, approaching community and church leaders around Mississippi and the rest of the South with a message about civil rights. Glover has also been reaching out to college students in Atlanta and Washington, D.C.

At the center of the organizing effort is a college student group called the Mississippi Student Justice Alliance. That group of about 200 students has been using Facebook, Twitter, college Web sites and public rallies to enlist student volunteers from other colleges under the banner of “Concerned Students for a Better Nissan.”

On the topic of organizing Nissan workers, the students tend to talk less about auto industry issues than about civil rights.

At the helm of the Mississippi student group is Chicago native Tyson Jackson, a student of Tougaloo College near the Canton plant. Jackson says he helped launch the Nissan student drive in hopes of “capturing the spirit of other civil rights organizations, like SNCC.” SNCC — pronounced “snick” — was the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the fabled student civil rights organization of the 1960s. Jackson and his fellow students speak of organizing Nissan workers as the next step in a decades-long civil rights movement.

The students have traveled as far as this year’s Geneva auto show to hand out fliers. Jackson also alludes to the possibility of mobilizing a student boycott of Nissan vehicles.

“We’re in this to win it for Nissan,” Jackson says. “If Nissan can’t treat their workers right, why should we buy their products?”

So far, Nissan has made little acknowledgement of either Danny Glover or the fledgling student movement that he is aiding. If the past is any indicator, the automaker may do no more than simply wait for the campaign to run out of steam. That is exactly what has happened to all other UAW organizing drives among the non-Detroit 3 automakers over the past 30 years.

But until now, Hollywood has never factored into the effort.

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