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Co-chair of Poor People’s Campaign gives pro-UAW speech in Montgomery

At the “Moral Monday” event, Bishop William Barber II talked about how his Christian faith informs his support of unions.

Hyundai workers stand in front of Rev. Barber at a pro-union event in Montgomery. Yolanda Barksdale
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On Monday night, Bishop William Barber II spoke to Hyundai employees and other community members at the Immanuel Presbyterian Church in Montgomery. Barber is a minister, the founder of the religious nonprofit Repairers of the Breach, and a co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign.

Workers at the Hyundai plant in Montgomery began a union organizing drive in February. While auto workers at the Mercedes plant in Vance are voting in a union election this week, the campaign at the Hyundai plant has yet to get a majority of workers to sign authorization cards and is still a ways away from filing for an official election.

“We’re here tonight because workers are crying out for justice,” said Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, a Baptist preacher who works with the Poor People’s Campaign.

Several of those workers were invited up to give speeches about their experiences working for Hyundai.

Drena Smith, a pro-union Hyundai employee, talked about worrying about not having a pension after she retires and about the injuries she suffered on the job, which required two rotator cuff surgeries. “The problems at Hyundai are not just problems at Hyundai. They’re problems everywhere in the South,” she said.

Smith complained that “the governor is against us, the city is against us. It’s like we’re fighting an uphill battle by ourselves.”

Another Hyundai worker, Robert Strollinger, compared the pro-union campaign to the Biblical story of David and Goliath. “We as Hyundai workers tonight, we might be small in stature,” he said. “But we’re going to be like David on the battlefield.”

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Barber spoke after the Hyundai workers, delivering a wide-ranging address on the American economy, the importance of unions, and Christianity.

He criticized the business practices of foreign companies operating in the South and the politicians who enable them. “These companies, they extract from the community,” he said. “They come to the South and they take out. They get free money, free tax breaks. They put a lot of money, sometimes, in the [political] campaigns.”

“Hyundai workers in South Korea have a union,” Barber said. “And if they got a union in South Korea, they need a union in the South in America.”

In his speech, Barber also made frequent references to the history of unions and of interracial organizing in the American South. He quoted from the 1935 poem “Let America Be America Again” by Langston Hughes, discussed Alabama’s 1868 Reconstruction constitution, and spoke about both the Knights of Labor and the interracial strikes by Alabama mineworkers in the early 1900s.

Barber repeatedly rejected the history of hatred in the South, instead calling for the South to be the center of a new moral revival. “See sometimes, people talk about the South rising again. We don’t want that South to rise again, but we do want the South to rise anew, the South to be a place where folk have workers’ rights,” he said.

He stated that the ongoing unionization campaigns are part of a major movement in the South, saying that “God has fixed it so that the stones that the builders rejected can now be the cornerstone of a brand new reality.”

Quoting extensively from the Bible to make his point, Barber argued that “union rights and labor rights are right because God’s word is clear.”

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Throughout his speech, Barber was also incredibly critical of anti-union politicians, especially the seven Southern governors who signed onto a joint anti-UAW statement in April.

“The holy book said that if you’re on the side of justice and you’re on the side of workers, you’re on the side of God,” he said. “If you don’t care about workers, you don’t care about people having rights, then you are engaged in false worship. Those governors need to watch themselves.”

Chance Phillips is a reporting intern at the Alabama Political Reporter. You can reach him at [email protected].

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