The Freightliner Five need your support

Lee Sustar looks at the struggle of five strike leaders fighting for their jobs.

A FIGHT for the jobs of five workers terminated for union activity at a North Carolina truck plant has high stakes for labor's long effort to organize the South--and the workers are asking for support from labor and social justice activists across the U.S. and internationally.

What you can do

For more information about the Freightliner Five, go to their No Justice, No Solidarity Web site. The Five are asking for donations to help them in their struggle--you can contribute on the Web site.

The five, members of United Auto Workers (UAW) Local 3520, are being targeted by management for their leading role in fighting for a good contract. They were among 11 members of a union negotiating committee fired by Freightliner on April 3, 2007. Their offense was to lead a walkout the previous day after the contract covering 3,000 workers at the company's Cleveland, N.C., plant expired.

Six of the workers have gotten their jobs back, but only after signing a "model employee" agreement. The fired workers, known as the Freightliner Five--Glenna Swinford, Franklin Torrence, Robert Whiteside, Allen Bradley and David Crisco--were not offered the opportunity to return to work on any terms.

If Freightliner gets away with firing the five, it would be "a strong weapon for the right-to-work people to take this thing and turn it any way they want to," said Torrence, referring to the anti-union business-funded groups that have for decades succeeding in keeping unions in the South few in numbers and weak.

A 15-year employee at Freightliner, Torrence, like Swinford, Bradley and Whiteside, was a member of the voluntary organizing committee that got the Cleveland plant organized in 2003. "We are strong supporters of the labor movement, no doubt about it," he said.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

AFTER YEARS of failed efforts since the plant opened in 1989, union organizing took off in 2002 after Freightliner's parent company, then called DaimlerChrysler, installed Rainer Schmueckle as president and CEO. By cutting wages by an average of $1.15 per hour and imposing cost-sharing for health care, he gave the UAW momentum at the Cleveland factory and other Freightliner plants as well.

Between 2003 and 2006, more than 6,000 workers joined the UAW at plants in North Carolina, Georgia and Tennessee, according to the union. At the Cleveland plant--the largest maker of the big Class 8 heavy trucks in the U.S.--the UAW invoked a neutrality agreement with DaimlerChrysler, which allowed workers to unionize when a majority signed membership cards, rather than go through a federally supervised election

Once the union was certified, relations with management were often contentious. And as so often the case in the South, race was an issue.

Robert Whiteside, who, like Torrence, is African American, said that management played the race card after he was elected chair of the shop committee, making him the leader of the union on the shop floor.

"The plant manager refused to meet with me," Whiteside said. "He met with the previous shop chair [who is white]. The previous shop chair had an in-plant office, paid for by the company. As soon as I was elected to the position, that went away."

Tensions mounted during negotiations, in which Whiteside led Local 3520's bargaining committee. Even though Freightliner's success helped Daimler's truck group make record profits of $2.6 billion in 2006, management wouldn't budge.

So when the company broke off negotiations, announced layoffs and informed workers that they no longer had the protection of a union contract or health care coverage, the bargaining committee instructed members to walk out.

While wages were an issue, health and safety was key. "The injury rate here is tremendous," Whiteside told a reporter on the picket line. "We want to come in and put in a full day's work and walk out tired, but with all our limbs intact." The strike was called off after several hours by Local 3520 President George Drexel, who claimed that it had not been sanctioned by the UAW International.

Later, workers rejected a proposed contract that didn't include the health and safety gains sought by the bargaining committee, but they ratified a similar deal a few weeks later in a vote held on company property--from which the five are banned.

In the meantime, the UAW is pursuing grievances to get the five their jobs back. In a letter to the five dated January 17, David Curson, assistant to UAW President Ron Gettelfinger, wrote, "The International Union is fully engaged on your behalf defending you in the grievance process."

The five did win unemployment benefits, but those are long gone. As a result, they need financial support from union members and supporters to support their families and continue their struggle.

The stakes in this battle are high, said Ken Riley, president of International Longshoreman's Association Local 1422 in Charleston, S.C., who led the successful defense of five members of his union who faced jail time after a police attack on their picket line.

"They are in one of the most hostile regions to unions in the country, like we are," Riley said. "This is what this whole action is about--the employer is making a statement that you're not to strike, you're not to stand up for your rights."

With solidarity, the Freightliner Five can win this fight, said Glenna Swinford. "There's strength in numbers," she said. "If we get organized in the South--if we band together--we can have good contracts there."