US: Truck plant strike leaders sacked

Two weeks after a wildcat strike against layoffs, eleven Freightliner LLC workers in North Carolina have been fired.

Submitted by Steven. on April 19, 2007

Christopher Kirkpatrick reported in the Charlotte Observer that more than two weeks after an unauthorized strike sputtered, Freightliner LLC workers in Rowan County are set to vote today on a new contract, similar to agreements overwhelmingly approved by the company's Mount Holly and Gastonia workers.

And the company has fired 11 leaders of the wildcat strike, according to Gary Casteel, director of UAW Region 8, which includes the Carolinas, nine other states and the District of Columbia.

"There are two things a company will take the hardest stance on -- workplace violence and an unauthorized work stoppage," he said. "They are not going to reinstate them."

The parent union did file grievances on behalf of the 11, six from the local bargaining committee, to try to restore their jobs, he said. That process will take awhile, and they won't be paid in the meantime, he said.

The unauthorized strike set the leadership of UAW Local 3520, which represents the workers at the Cleveland plant, at odds with the International Union, United Auto Workers. Casteel said the international had warned local leadership against striking.

The incident also places the international leadership on the side of the company, which Casteel said has been one of its better employers.

Initially, the 700 workers who walked off the truck manufacturing lines were fired. But all were quickly rehired, except for the 11, Casteel said, declining to identify them. The walkout came in the wake of layoffs announced in December. The company said it was slashing 1,200 of the roughly 4,000 jobs at the Cleveland plant, citing stricter government regulations for new diesel engines that have increased costs and hurt sales.

The company would not return a call seeking comment. George Drexel, president of Local 3520, and Robert Whiteside, chairman of the bargaining committee and a Local 3520 official, did not return calls. The plant is in its usual three-week spring shut-down period.

Casteel said there was no need for the April 2 strike: A bargaining session with Freightliner had been scheduled for that week, and 95 percent of workers at the company's other plants had approved contracts, he said.

He would not give specifics, but said the three-year proposed contract holds the line on health care premiums, offers lump sum bonuses for each worker and gives raises each year. Line workers at the plant can now make more than $22 an hour and skilled tradesman more than $26 an hour, he said.

Leaders of the strike were demanding higher pay and safer working conditions. They said the Cleveland plant is the company's largest and most profitable but with the lowest pay and benefits. The plant makes long-haul, sleeper trucks.

They complained Freightliner wasn't sharing profits from banner years and had not brought safety and ergonomic standards, such as improving ventilation, up to date.

On April 2, the local leaders persuaded about 700 workers to walk off the job in hopes of sparking a factorywide strike. The plant's contract had expired March 31. According to Casteel, the elected representatives told workers there was a strike under way.

Casteel said despite the conflict between local and international union members, they are united on at least one front -- keeping jobs from being exported.

Freightliner is investing $50 million in the Cleveland plant for upgrades but $400 million in a new operation in Mexico, he said. He said the company defended the move as simply meeting demand in that part of the Western Hemisphere.

"We had assurances that plant in Mexico wasn't being built to be a Cleveland killer," Casteel said.