Freightliner workers demand job security, benefits during contract negotiations

  • Posted: Friday, May 3, 2013 12:54 a.m.
    UPDATED: Friday, May 3, 2013 1:18 a.m.
John Smith and Jimmy Murdock greet each other Thursday at the union rally at the Freightliner plant in Cleveland, where they have worked a total of 38 years. Photo by Emily Ford
John Smith and Jimmy Murdock greet each other Thursday at the union rally at the Freightliner plant in Cleveland, where they have worked a total of 38 years. Photo by Emily Ford

CLEVELAND — The union and Freightliner’s parent company, Daimler Trucks North America, could not meet an April deadline and have extended contract negotiations for 60 days.

Hundreds of workers rallied Thursday in front of the Freightliner plant, one of Rowan County’s largest employers, to show solidarity. Top union demands are job security, pension protection and health insurance for retirees.

United Auto Workers union officials in Cleveland said they expect to meet again soon with top Daimler executives from Germany and Portland, Ore., to hash out details of a new contract. No date for the next meeting has been set, and the parties have until June 21 to come to an agreement.

“Not only are we fighting for our plant, but we’re fighting for the whole community,” union chapter President Corey Hill said. “Manufacturers are leaving this country every day because people are not willing to stand up for what’s right.”

About 340 workers at the Cleveland plant were laid off April 8, fewer than the 715 potential layoffs announced by Daimler in January. About 1,500 employees remain at the Cleveland plant.

Hill said he wants the company to bring back laid off workers, run two full shifts and guarantee a higher number of trucks made in Cleveland, which would provide job security for employees.

Daimler currently guarantees an average of 60 new trucks per day at the Cleveland plant, Hill said, but the Freightliner plant in Saltillo, Mexico runs three shifts and makes 165 trucks per day.

Daimler could move some of those orders to Cleveland and put more people to work in the United States, Hill said.

“We are trying to fight for every job we possibly can,” Hill said.

Daimler is negotiating labor contracts with plants in the U.S. and Germany, where hundreds of employees stopped work temporarily this week in a push for higher wages.

Daimler’s top labor negotiator, Wilfried Porth, said Thursday in Detroit that German metal industry labor unions won’t get the 5.5 percent wage increases they’ve been demanding, according to the Wall Street Journal.

But the luxury car and commercial truck maker’s home-country workers likely won’t have to settle for no wage increase at all, Porth told the Wall Street Journal.

Porth, who is Daimler’s head of human resources, is touring Daimler’s North American operations this week and told reporters in Detroit that Daimler’s prospects in the U.S. are looking up. He noted that Freightliner, which had planned to cut about 1,000 jobs overall because of slow sales, has had a rebound in demand and laid off just 500 workers.

The Cleveland plant plays a crucial role in Daimler’s success in the U.S., local union officials said. They said the award-winning plant makes more models and outscores other facilities on warranty claims, breakdowns and other quality measures.

“We can’t compete with Mexico on wages, but our quality is superior,” said Steve Barber, chairman of the union’s bargaining committee.

Daimler has a 43 percent market share in the commercial truck industry, thanks in large part to the highly rated Cleveland plant, Barber said.

“To be No. 1 in a lot of areas, they are treating their employees here like No. 101, and that’s not fair,” Barber said. “It’s called social injustice.”

Several workers said job security and the truck build rate are their major concerns, not wages. Top pay at the plant is about $24 per hour, which was frozen in 2010, the last time the union and Daimler negotiated a contract.

Mike Martin, who has worked at the plant for 27 years, said employees want to make sure they have a job, a pension and health care coverage when they retire.

The Freightliner plant generates tax revenue to pay for services like schools, roads and police protection, employees said.

“It is very important for Rowan County that they keep this plant open,” Martin said. “People think we’re greedy, but it’s not about money. We’re out here trying to save the economy of Rowan County.”

The Freightliner plant is the fourth-largest employer in the county, behind Rowan-Salisbury Schools, Food Lion and the Hefner VA Medical Center.

The rally, which lasted about two hours, had an upbeat atmosphere, with motorists and truck drivers honking loud and long as they drove past demonstrators. Children waved and called from school buses traveling on U.S. Highway 70.

Some workers donned hats and Mickey Mouse ears, and nearly everyone waved a sign supporting the union, which has about 1,650 members, including some who were laid off last month.

John Smith, a 20-year Freightliner veteran, said employees turned out to “show our unity, show our resolve and show our dedication to keeping our jobs here.”

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