Mercedes Enlists a Pastor in Its Union-Busting Campaign

A group of 33 Black and white women and men stands in a union hall, smiling and looking determined, many holding fists in the air. Many hold printed union signs. Yellow ones say "Union Yes." Red ones say "We are Alabama, we are UAW" and "No voice, no choice." Various signs on the wall behind them, including a big blue banner that says "Workers joining together for the mutual aid and protection of each other and their common interests."

Voting on whether to join the United Auto Workers begins today for 5,200 Mercedes workers at the company’s factory complex and electric battery plant outside Tuscaloosa, Alabama. The vote count is Friday, May 17. Photo: UAW

As Mercedes workers began their 12-hour shifts at 6 a.m. today, their phones buzzed with a company text message: “Here in Alabama, community is important, and family is everything. We believe it’s important to keep work separate. But there’s no denying, a union would have an impact beyond the walls of our plant.”

Voting on whether to join the United Auto Workers begins today for 5,200 Mercedes workers at the company’s factory complex and electric battery plant outside Tuscaloosa, Alabama. The vote runs through May 17 with a vote count after the polls close at 9:45 a.m. Central.

“For a lot of the workers at Mercedes, there isn’t a singular event that led up to the union campaign,” said Detrick Lewis, an assembly line worker in the body shop who has been at the company since 2014. “It’s kind of like a snowball at the top of the mountain. You don’t pay any attention to that small ball, but once it's a giant boulder coming down, then it’s: how did it get so big?”

Lewis said the union drive is spurred on by an accumulation of grievances: the pandemic, the imposition of a tier-two wage system, and the layoffs of temporary workers who had been promised they would be converted to permanent employees.

In its last-ditch effort to bust the union, Mercedes called in divine intervention from beyond the plant walls in the form of a video message from Reverend Matthew Wilson, a pastor of the Providence Missionary Baptist Church in Marion, Alabama, and a city councilperson for Tuscaloosa.

“This is a strategy as old as unions,” said Kate Bronfenbrenner, director of labor education research at the Cornell University School of Industrial Labor Relations. “Particularly in towns dominated by a very large corporation, companies give enough money to churches to purchase their long-term loyalty, and rely on the church leaders to preach an anti-union message.”

The election at Mercedes follows on the heels of a landmark union victory at the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee, where 4,300 workers voted to join UAW—the first auto plant election the union has won in the South since the 1940s.

It also comes after, on the brink of a strike, ​​truck and school bus manufacturing workers ratified a new contract between Daimler Truck and the UAW. Mercedes is the largest shareholder of Daimler Truck, which was spun off from the Mercedes-Benz Group in 2021.

The deal ends wage tiers, boosts wages 25 percent over four years, and adds a cost-of-living adjustment based on the formula of the Big 3 contracts and, for the first time, profit-sharing.


In the video, Rev. Wilson implores Mercedes workers to give new CEO Federico Pablo Kochlowski a chance, saying “the legacy of the state of Alabama is counting” on it.

“Mercedes Benz has been an uplift for people like me, for people who look like me,” he said in the recording, Black assembly line workers moved from the Black Belt to seek employment at Mercedes, especially after Alabama lost almost 50,000 manufacturing jobs between 2002 and 2017. That’s partly why today the plant employs a large Black workforce.

The UAW has until the Volkswagen victory in April failed to crack open the fortress of dispossession in the Deep South, where foreign automakers sited their plants to dodge unions in right-to-work states, and to benefit from large tax breaks and lower labor costs. Southern workers are just as skilled as other workers but grindingly exploited because well-paying jobs are scarce and unions scarcer.

Alabama paid the salaries of auto workers at Mercedes while they trained in the 1990s—a gambit to lure investment from auto manufacturers that almost bankrupted the state.


The video comes after Rev. Wilson walked the assembly line May 10 alongside a plant manager.

“When we first saw him, we thought it was a joke,” said Deborah Sandifer, a materials handler.
She and her co-workers had been wondering what the company would do next in its barrage of anti-union messages. “We made a joke of it and said they brought a reverend to walk up in here because he had a suit on,” she said.

When Sandifer walked to another part of the floor, workers didn’t believe her at first. “They didn’t believe Mercedes was stupid enough to bring a pastor. What is he supposed to do?” she said. “I believe in God. But what does a pastor have to tell me about my job situation?”

The UAW has filed six charges against the company for disciplining employees for discussing unionization, banning the distribution of union materials, surveilling employees, discharging union supporters, forcing employees to attend captive-audience meetings, and making statements suggesting that union activity is futile.



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Rev. Wilson walked up to workers who were visibly pro-union to ask what Mercedes could do for them. One was Sandifer’s friend, an assembly worker on the trim line.

Sandifer’s friend told Wilson that Mercedes couldn’t do anything for her because she was retiring, but then she added: “We workers are going to get our union before I leave here.”


Lewis was returning to the line after a bathroom break when Rev. Wilson spotted the UAW on his T-shirt and wristbands, and approached him.

“I definitely feel like it was targeted because I was wearing UAW gear, and I’ve been in commercials,” said Lewis. “I’m pretty well-known around the plant.”

Lewis said many of Wilson’s comments were a bit vague and focused on what workers could achieve as individuals. He didn’t find this persuasive.

“There’s not a single action in history that the effect was just one person doing something,” he told Rev. Wilson. “One person can start something, but in order to create change, you have to have backing behind you.”

Lewis pointed to the Civil Rights Movement. “I asked him, because he was a Morehouse graduate, ‘If the voice of one is so imperative. Because we’re both Black men, how do you feel about Martin Luther King, Jr.?’” (Rev. Wilson graduated with his Master's of Divinity from the Morehouse School of Religion at the Interdenominational Theological Center of Atlanta, Georgia. The school isn’t affiliated with Morehouse College.)

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

Rev. Wilson didn’t respond to a request for comment.

“I can say that he is not representative of how many Black ministers in Tuscaloosa feel about the union vote at Mercedes,” said Joseph F. Scrivner, a dean of Chapel at Stillman College and a pastor at Brown Memorial Presbyterian Church in a district represented by Rev. Wilson. “In fact, the Tuscaloosa Ministerial Alliance has discussed the union vote and there is some diversity among the members, as you might expect. There isn’t a stated position. Yet, I think it’s fair to say that the ministers believe the workers should be free to engage in an informed vote.”

Dr. King died supporting striking sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee. When the conversation turned to strike action to meet worker demands, Lewis said Rev. Wilson pulled out a calculator to remind him that he needed to be “conscious about his finances” while on strike. “I told him to put a flat amount, but he was really trying to break down my finances.”

The fear-mongering didn’t work. Lewis talked about how after the Big 3 strikes the company bumped their pay $2 an hour when previous raises were 87 cents, eliminated two-tier pay, and offered profit-sharing.

“They gave us profit-sharing because we started to group together to sign union cards, and Mercedes started to feel the pressure,” said Lewis.

“It is certainly worth noting how historically important the Christian church has been to organizing in the South for generations,” said Dr. Robert Greene II, a historian at Claflin University. “However, this story is important insofar as we often think of it in a positive light—such as the Civil Rights Movement—but this is a reminder of how often churches have been a critical part of social control in the South.

“One of the better examples of this was the split within the National Baptist Convention in the late 1950s and early 1960s over support for direct action tactics as part of the Civil Rights Movement. Reverend Joseph Jackson often opposed King over the latter’s use of civil disobedience and direct action tactics.

"What we are seeing today is that, like so much else of Southern and American society, church leaders and members can find themselves on various sides of major debates about politics, class, and identity.”

Corrections: Wording has been adjusted to clarify that Reverend Matthew Wilson didn’t graduate from Morehouse College. Rev. Wilson graduated with his Master's of Divinity from the Morehouse School of Religion at the Interdenominational Theological Center of Atlanta, Georgia. The school isn’t affiliated with Morehouse College.

Luis Feliz Leon is a staff writer and organizer with Labor