South Africans Embrace Us With Their Amazing Spirit

Mississippi Nissan worker Betty Jones addresses supporters in South Africa to raise awareness of Canton, Miss., plant workers who want a fair union election.

Mississippi Nissan worker Betty Jones addresses supporters in South Africa to raise awareness of Canton, Miss., plant workers who want a fair union election.

By Betty Jones, Nissan technician

I was blessed to be part of a delegation that just returned from an unforgettable visit to South Africa, where the warmth and love we received from everyone –especially union members at Nissan — will sustain us as we continue to stand up for our rights and dignity.

Our delegation included the Reverend Dr. Isiac Jackson, president of the Mississippi Alliance for Fairness at Nissan (MAFFAN), Derrick Johnson, head of the Mississippi NAACP, as well as several UAW representatives including President Bob King. We were thrilled to be joined as well by our amazing supporter and dear friend Danny Glover.

There were so many incredible experiences. I spoke to a large meeting of 800 workers from Nissan, who are members of the South African auto union, NUMSA, and they gave us a wonderful reception. It is incredible that the company works cooperatively with the union in South Africa, while implying to us in Mississippi that we might lose our jobs if we also seek union representation.

One of the most heartwarming and moving experiences of my life was when the workers literally embraced me with song and dance, encouraging us to keep up our struggle and never give up. They promised their full support and pledged to do everything they can to convince the company to allow a free union election in the United States.

The South Africans organized a march and a public demonstration at the Japanese embassy to publicize the company’s attacks on worker rights in the U.S.  I know that these warm and friendly people will continue to engage in public actions until Nissan agrees to treat us equally to their unionized facilities all over the world.

We had many important meetings. We met with Nissan management to ask them to share our concerns with the company’s executives. We also met with other union leaders, including leaders of the COSATU federation, the garment workers’ union, and the soccer players’ union. They all endorsed our campaign and will support us. Leadership of the African National Congress (ANC) also heard our story and offered to help. There is clearly a strong bond between the UAW and the unions of South Africa, because for many years the UAW was a leader in the fight against the apartheid government. The UAW took many actions to support workers fighting for the right to have unions in South Africa and to have the right to equality and democracy.

We visited Lilyfields Farms where the leaders of the anti-apartheid movement were arrested. The person who hosted our delegation was Ahmed Kathrada, one of the ANC leaders who was arrested and put on trial with Nelson Mandela. He spent 26 years in prison. In 1994 he was elected to Congress in the country’s first free elections.

It is almost impossible to imagine the courage and perseverance of these heroic people.  They suffered greatly for decades but never gave up.  Even after going through so much hardship, they remain loving and warm and positive.

I will never forget the people I met and their generous spirit.  And they will always be a model to me of grace, dignity, courage, and the quest for human dignity. I will carry this spirit inside me forever, and try to live up to their inspiring example.