Railroading the Freightliner 5

It’s tough to lead a union local these days. Your members expect miracles and your boss would rather see your hindquarters disappear over the horizon, never to return. It’s especially hard to lead a union local in the heart of Dixie where the scars of slavery and Jim Crow still cut deep into the body politic.

The FreightLiner 5

If you want to know how hard it really is, ask Allen Bradley, Franklin Torrence, Robert Whiteside, Glenna Swinford and David Crisco. Known collectively as the Freightliner 5, they helped lead an "unauthorized" strike against the Cleveland, North Carolina Freightliner truck plant. Freightliner is a division of Daimler, a German based manufacturing conglomerate.

In Germany, Daimler has come a long ways since it smashed German autoworker unions, supported the rise of Hitler and deployed slave labor from Nazi death camps. Its German workforce is now unionized into the IG Metall union and has won significant gains against a company with such a war criminal past.

But in back here in the USA Daimler is behaving more like its former Nazi collaborator self as it tries to ram concessions down the throats of its workers. Maybe Daimler thought that by locating their plant in the American Southland, with its own tragic history of slave labor camps and racial oppression, that they could go back to the bad old days…at least some of them anyway

Instead, they found themselves confronting a workforce who wanted to  fight for their dignity.

When UAW Local 3035 finally won a representation election in the Cleveland, North Carolina Freightliner plant in 2003, there were celebrations all through labor land. Finally, the UAW had cracked the South.

Celebrations were shortlived. The first contract with Freightliner did not make the membership happy. There were accusations that Lead UAW International Representative Steve Jones did not push the company hard enough. Workers learned of a "preagreement" where the UAW leadership agreed to give concessions to Freightliner Corp. According to the Freightliner 5:

The UAW gave concessions and assurances to Freightliner Corp. that if Freightliner would allow a card check to take place instead of a National Labor Relations Board election, the plants under this agreement would not be allowed to reach the same levels of wages and benefits as other unionized Freightliner facilities. We have signed copies of this agreement.

When the time came to negotiate a new contract in 2007, leaders of Local 3520 were determined to get a better contract than their 2003 agreement. The membership voted overwhelmingly to give the Bargaining Committee the right to strike because of Daimler’s intransigence.

The UAW leadership in Detroit then told Local 3520 that they should accept a concession-laden contract and basically refused the workers further help. With 22 articles of their contract still unresolved and determined not to capitulate to Detroit’s and Daimler’s demands, the Bargaining Committee voted for an unauthorized strike and most of the workers in the plant were soon walking the picket line.

It was at this point that the Local 3520 president decided to bow to the UAW’s Detroit leadership and oppose the strike action. The strike collapsed into confusion and demoralization. 11 strike leaders were fired and 700 workers faced disciplinary actions.

The UAW Detroit leadership locked out the original Bargaining Committee from negotiations and concluded an agreement far short of what the membership wanted. To add insult to injury, Allen Bradley, Franklin Torrence, Robert Whiteside, Glenna Swinford and David Crisco were brought up on internal union charges for leading the unauthorized strike. Their lawyer Ellis Boal has stated that the evidence against them is very flimsy. They are still without their jobs at Freightliner. They are now touring the country trying to rally support.

Here are 5 stand-up union people who are unafraid to push for the rights of their co-workers. Anyone who has ever tried to organize in the face of company harassment plus worker fear and confusion knows that people of this caliber are worth their weight in gold.

Our labor movement should be cultivating them, training them and supporting them.These are the kind of people who can build a labor movement that can turn this country around.

Was the unauthorized strike a tactical mistake? Maybe. But to try drive these people out of their union for a tactical mistake would be like trading Babe Ruth because he struck out from time to time. What was Detroit thinking? Or maybe the question is—- were they thinking at all.

I try to illustrate my labor rants with our cartoons, but when I went looking for one to accompany this story, I came up empty. Zilch. We just don’t produce cartoons about situations where workers not only have to buck an international corporation but also an international union.

Who would print them? Union publications stay as far away for controversial issues as possible. Most unions are one-party states controlled by internal political machines. This should surprise no one.

One could argue that in what amounts to naked class war, the trappings of democracy just get in the way of unity in the desperate struggle for economic survival. One could also argue that the perks of union office can look pretty good to someone who has gotten really tired of being a ordinary working stiff.

Personally, I think it’s a bit of both. Unions are not alone in this. More than one liberal social advocacy group has been accused of spending too much on the salaries and perks of their leaders and seeking to create a docile and distant membership.

I also doubt there would be much interest in the alternative press for a cartoon like this story deserves. Much of "progressive" America has no idea why a dynamic labor movement is necessary to achieve the kind of social transformation described in their blogs and small circulation printed journals.

So the Freightliner 5 are doing a slog across the USA trying to get the kind of support that should have been theirs in the first place.

Is this any way to run a labor movement?

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