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Mercedes worker says city councilor called Martin Luther King Jr. an “elitist classist”

Tuscaloosa city councilor and reverend Matthew Wilson recorded an anti-union video for Mercedes.

Tuscaloosa city councilor and local reverend Matthew Wilson speaking against the UAW in a video Mercedes sent to Mercedes employees.
Rev. Matthew Wilson speaking in an anti-union video for Mercedes
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On Monday, Mercedes texted many of its employees a link to a video of Tuscaloosa city councilor and reverend Matthew Wilson encouraging workers to vote against joining the United Auto Workers this week. Wilson represents Tuscaloosa City Council District 1, which encompasses much of the poorer West Tuscaloosa community.

“Mercedes-Benz has been an uplift for people like me, for people who look like me,” Wilson said. Urging caution, he said that “Mercedes has been through some changes, but this one change, I would suggest to us to be careful of.”

He continued: “As you cast each ballot, think about the legacy that we are leaving our children. Do we want to allow a particular group to determine that they have to go back and forth to negotiate something for us? Or do we want to be able to go directly to the company?”

Luis Feliz Leon also reported in Labor Notes that Detrick Lewis, a pro-union Mercedes employee, said that Wilson spoke with Lewis about the union organizing drive while touring the Mercedes plant with a manager.

Lewis reportedly asked Wilson how he felt about Martin Luther King Jr. as a black man and as a pastor. King was a consistent supporter of labor unions and his final speech in Memphis was given to support striking sanitation workers.

Wilson, according to Lewis, said that “Martin Luther King was an elitist classist who did not care about the average American.”

In a statement emailed to APR, Wilson disputed Lewis’ recollection, calling it “a combination of sentences.” Wilson said that he called King “classically educated” and “part of an elite group of people.”

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Wilson also challenged the validity of Lewis’ comparison of King’s advocacy to the unionization drive at Mercedes.

He said: “I firmly believe that when the Poor Peoples Campaign was created in 1967 to address economic justice issues, Dr. King was not referring to someone who makes $75,000 – $100,000 a year with a high school education, access to healthcare and childcare benefits, just to name a few as impoverished, similar to the ones he addressed in Memphis Tennessee on the night before he passed away.

A 2023 report by Alabama Arise found that the salary of the average autoworker in the state was $64,682. Pay for full-time production workers at the Vance plant tops out at $34 per hour.

The UAW, then led by Walter Reuther, was a key supporter of King’s Poor People’s Campaign and the co-chair of the modern revival of the Poor People’s Campaign, Bishop William Barber II, spoke on Monday in support of the UAW unionization campaign at the Hyundai plant in Montgomery.

Wilson also drew attention to how the Mercedes plant has benefited the Tuscaloosa economy and stated that his commitment lies in safeguarding the interest of the working people.

Per a 2021 article in the Tuscaloosa News, when Wilson first began running for the Tuscaloosa City Council, he actively sought to qualify for the race on January 15, Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday.

The ongoing union election has led politicians on both sides of the aisle to make public statements in favor of and against the UAW.

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Gov. Kay Ivey signed onto a joint anti-UAW statement with six other governors and claimed that the Alabama model for economic success is under attack in an op-ed.

House Majority Leader Scott Stadthagen called the UAW a multi-level marketing scheme and Alabama Secretary of Commerce Ellen McNair pledged that Alabama politicians and businesspeople were going to fight the UAW.

While city council elections in Tuscaloosa are officially nonpartisan, Wilson’s district is heavily Democratic. On Monday, the Alabama Democratic Party publicly took a much more pro-union stance than Wilson, leading union talk radio show The Valley Labor Report to tweet that the party had taken “veiled shots” at the city councilor.

In a statement posted to X, formerly Twitter, the party stated that it “stands with the United Auto Workers.” Alabama Democratic Party chairman Randy Kelley said that “the Democratic Party is the party of labor.”

The statement concluded by quoting a speech Martin Luther King Jr. gave at the Illinois AFL-CIO convention in 1965.

In the speech, King said that “the labor movement was the principal movement that transformed misery and despair into hope and progress.”

Editors Note: This piece was updated to incorporate a statement Wilson provided to APR. 

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

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