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Union provides turkey dinners to laid-off workers

CLEVELAND — Jeff Wiemelt lost his job at the Freightliner plant in April, again.
Wiemelt, who lives in Salisbury, started working for Daimler Trucks North America at the Freightliner truck manufacturing plant in Cleveland in 2003. He was laid off in 2008 and called back in 2012.
On April 8, he was one of about 340 workers who lost their jobs. Wiemelt has been unemployed ever since.
He and other laid-off union members received a gift from United Auto Workers Local 3520 Friday that should bring some Christmas cheer to their homes during an especially hard time of the year to be unemployed.
The union provided boxed turkey dinners for about 300 laid-off members, including a 12-pound frozen turkey with boxed stuffing, canned vegetables, macaroni and cheese, a cake mix and frosting.
“It’s great, it’s really nice,” said Wiemelt, who has single-handedly raised his 18-year-old son since the child was 3. “I never expected this.”
While Wiemelt said he would have found a way to put a turkey on the Christmas table for his son, the free meal means he can use that money for something else.
“I can put it in the gas tank,” he said.
Wiemelt earned $25 an hour as a diesel mechanic at the Freightliner plant. Now, he said he’s applying for jobs that pay half as much.
Union President Corey Hill said the local UAW purchased the holiday meals with help from the international UAW, which has been encouraging community outreach. In addition to the turkey dinners for laid off workers that were distributed in Cleveland, Salisbury and Statesville, the union donated dozens of meals to Rowan Helping Ministries and Triad Dream Center in Statesville, union Vice President Jerry Hodge said.
“We know the situations they are facing with cuts in unemployment and other services,” Hill said. “We are trying to make it as convenient at possible for them to pick up the meals.”
Hill, Hodge and other union officials worked out of the back of a U-Haul truck parked at Patriot Towing on South Main Street Friday afternoon.
Terry Smothers of China Grove stopped by to pick up a turkey dinner. Still out of work since the April layoff, Smothers said he plans to travel to Raleigh to fight for unemployment benefits he said are still owed to him after a government snafu.
After six interviews at another local plant, Smothers said he did not land the job because companies hesitate to hire laid-off Daimler workers, afraid they will return to the Freightliner plant if they are called back.
“We are discriminated against,” Smothers said.
With an adult child and two grandchildren at home, Smothers said the turkey dinner will save him and his wife from spending money they don’t have.
“It will help tremendously,” he said.
Doug Conner of Kannapolis picked up two meals — one for himself and one for his brother, who also lost his job at the Freightliner plant and now works as a school janitor.
Conner is scheduled for spine fusion surgery in January and said he has been out of work since September 2012 due to a work-related injury. He was one of the employees who lost their jobs in April.
Conner said he and his wife will be able to have their own Christmas dinner.
“I deeply appreciate it,” he said.
About half of the laid-off union members still have no job, Hill said. Those who have found employment are “working at a whole lot less wage than they were making,” he said.
The union continues to negotiate a new contract with Daimler. Sticking points continue to be retiree health care and pension benefits, Hill said.
He said he hopes to present a contract to union members for their consideration in January.
In the meantime, Hill said he was happy to provide a Christmas dinner for union members who are struggling during the holidays.
“The main thing is, we want them to know people haven’t forgotten about them,” Hill said. “People are doing through hard times right now.”

Contact reporter Emily Ford at 704-797-4264.

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