Dozens of Chattanoogans marched throughout downtown on Saturday to protest low wages, dangerous working conditions and other plights of low-income workers, essential workers and workers of color.
The Workers for Black Lives rally and march was the most recent in a series of a couple of dozen protests in Chattanooga this summer to address the needs of people of color, especially the Black community, after a chain of anti-police brutality and criminal justice reform protests in June.
Saturday's march— which was hosted by the Unity Group, the Chattanooga Democratic Socialists of America, Tennessee United, the East Tennessee Poor People's Campaign and several local labor groups— centered around a demand for better wages, benefits and working conditions during and after the COVID-19 pandemic for all workers, especially the Black and Latino communities. Members of those communities make roughly half of the average wage of their white counterparts in Chattanooga, but account for disproportionately high rates of the coronavirus and unemployment, statistics show.
"With some of the issues that have gone on in this country around George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, and here in Chattanooga with the Hamilton County Sheriff's Department, and on the other hand we see COVID-19 spiraling out of control, we have two pandemics going on right now in our poorest communities," said Eric Atkins, who works with both the Unity Group and the Poor People's Campaign.
"The reason we are here is we are seeing too many front-line workers, many of whom are Black or Latino, being left in the cold because they haven't been getting personal protective equipment, hazard pay, sick leave, and at the same time you have this social movement where we are addressing the inequalities for these communities. So we're out here because we see that these two are intertwined."
Representatives of different labor and social groups spoke at stops along the march's path, which began and ended in Miller Park but spread throughout downtown Chattanooga up through the Westside near the College Hills Court housing development, calling for better treatment of low-wage workers.
"We believe that all working people deserve to have a good job, fair wages, quality health care, a safe job, paid time off, a flexible schedule, freedom to demonstrate, freedom from discrimination, the ability to retire with dignity, access to education, freedom to join together in a voice of democracy," Michael Starling, president of the Chattanooga Area Labor Collective, said to the crowd in Miller Park. "But now more than ever, these values are under attack."
Citing COVID-19 and the ongoing racial justice movements, Starling said now is the time for action.
"And we are faced with a global pandemic. A wildly disproportionate number of COVID-19 cases and deaths are Black and brown folks," he said, adding that other forms of equality cannot be realized with racial equality. "We know that racial justice and economic justice are tied closely together."
Other activists called for assistance for undocumented Latino laborers who are disproportionately impacted by the virus and for the city to raise the minimum pay of its employees to $15 in order to put pressure on other local companies to be competitive.
After criticism and arrests involving past protest groups, the group used more than half a dozen "marshals" to control the crowd and obey pedestrian laws with minimal traffic obstruction. Adult participants also wore masks in accordance with the Hamilton County mask mandate signed earlier this month to protect citizens from COVID-19.
Contact Sarah Grace Taylor at email@example.com or 423-757-6416. Follow her on Twitter @_sarahgtaylor.