A group of about 35 organized labor supporters gathered on Thursday in a public park to attack critics' efforts to sidetrack the United Auto Workers' ongoing campaign to organize the Chattanooga Volkswagen plant.
Though the UAW prayer vigil was initially promoted as counter-programming to a canceled event by the Beacon Center -- a free-enterprise think tank based in Nashville -- speakers quickly pivoted to attacking business groups and politicians who have warned that a UAW presence at VW would have a chilling effect on Chattanooga's economy.
A handful of religious leaders, most of whom identified as being from a union background, called what they termed "outside groups" to task for defending a situation several compared to slavery.
"I hear a federal, United States Senator and our Congressman cry 'free enterprise, free enterprise, free enterprise,' on the backs of slaves we will not allow to unionize," shouted Leroy Griffith, a retired minister from Renaissance Presbyterian.
Volkswagen workers' currently earn a starting salary of $15 per hour, which can rise to $21 per hour over five years, not including an extra dollar available to swing shift workers and team leaders. The average worker makes $18.50 per hour, and workers who have stayed at the plant since it was built are currently making $20 per hour.
United Auto Workers' pay starts at $15.78, rising to $19.28 per hour after four years, minus two hours of pay each month for union dues.
Brian Merrit, evangelist for Mercy Junction, called joining a union "freedom from wage slavery and debt."
"We are here to proclaim that money and power are not morality, no matter how often our boot-licking politicians take that line," he said.
Sen. Bob Corker, who said a choice by workers to vote for the UAW would be "Volkswagen's biggest mistake," blames organized labor for the disintegration of the U.S. auto industry in the face of foreign competition, and for a taxpayer-subsidized bailout that ceded ownership of large chunks of GM and Chrysler over to the UAW with no recompense for the company's debt holders.
Gov. Bill Haslam, backed up by the national Right to Work organization, has warned that manufacturers would be loathe to relocate to Tennessee in light of the UAW's strengthened presence there, saying the prospect of a more expensive and militant labor pool would hurt the state's recruitment efforts.
Companies don't intentionally seek out more expensive ways to produce their products, Haslam said, noting that many businesses seek out Tennessee because it's a right-to-work state.
But that prospect doesn't concern Patricia Bazemore, the event's organizer and a member of Occupy Chattanooga, which shares some similarities and membership with Chattanoogans Organized for Action and with Chattanooga for Workers.
"Any company that's discouraged by that, we don't want them here because they're here to abuse workers," she said. "Any company that we want here is going to want [union representation]."
Calling the warnings from free-enterprise groups "just stories," Chattanooga Labor Council president Gary Watkins warned supporters that their help was needed "urgently" to fight what he presented as myths.
"You could almost write a Harry Potter novel on the stories being told here," he said. "These people make up a lot of stuff."
Lauren Feinauer, a self-identified Volkswagen employee who wore a pink UAW hoodie on Thursday night, said organizing efforts so far have been "going well."
"Sometimes we're finding people on break, or we're talking to people after work, that's mostly what we do," she said.
Reading from a prepared statement, she didn't list any specific complaints about life at VW's $1 billion Passat plant, but said she wanted to "see all workers treated with dignity and respect."
"I want union representation in my workplace," she said. "We can learn a lot from the German culture of labor relations."
-- Contact staff writer Ellis Smith at email@example.com or 423-757-6315