Once doors were slammed
in their faces
Now Freightliner workers have the power of their own union
Steve Beaver, who works at the Freightliner Cleveland,
N.C., plant can tell you what it's like to work for a nonunion company
that lacks safety procedures and a grievance process. Soon without ever
having to change employers, he will be able to tell you what it's like
to work union.
Beaver was hired into the maintenance department of the DaimlerChrysler-owned
heavy truck plant in 1996 with 25 years of welding experience. When three
welding positions opened, he bid on the jobs only to see them given to
people with less experience, qualifications and recommendations than he
He exercised his right to have his case heard through the company's "complaint
resolution process" but was denied the outside arbitration promised
by the company. Freightliner also offered a peer review system, "but
it was biased," Beaver said. Though the Equal Employment Opportunity
Commission (the federal agency responsible for enforcing civil rights
legislation) ruled in his favor, without a union there was little Beaver
could do with that small victory.
While Beaver was fighting on his own, workers at the Gastonia, N.C., Freightliner
plant became the first of the company's workforce to form a volunteer
organizing committee since workers at the Mt. Holly, N.C., Freightliner
plant organized 12 years ago.
Gastonia management immediately began to wage war against its 700 workers.
The company tried to frighten and intimidate workers to achieve a "No
Union" vote. Despite threatening to close the plant, Freightliner
won the March 2001 election by a mere 24 votes.
After their defeat, the Gastonia volunteer organizing committee (VOC)
struggled to hold union supporters together for a year while lending a
hand to the workers at Beaver's Cleveland plant who were just beginning
to build their VOC.
The Gastonia community was staunchly anti-union, unwilling to go against
the largest employer in the area. Most people still believed Freightliner
was a good corporate citizen.
With local news media and community institutions lined up against the
UAW, it was not surprising to hear anti-union sentiments coming from the
young work force at Freightliner, too.
The anti-union sentiment prevented Freightliner workers from exercising
their rights to assemble and speak. After the director of the local YMCA
approved their request for a meeting room, a superior stepped in and denied
the union's request.
Union supporters then scheduled a meeting at a church, only to see the
door slammed in their face again when the preacher called back and suddenly
cancelled. In desperation, Beaver asked his mother for help.
Although 75-year old Ruby Beaver had no opinion on unions, she had seen
how Freightliner had treated her two sons who worked there. She arranged
for the organizing committee to use her church for a meeting in February
Only 15 people attended that first meeting and just 35 at the second.
The town still operated under a dark cloud of anti-unionism from when
a few years ago a truck with a "Union sucks" sign on the tailgate
freely drove around, and union supporters were cursed at and spit on.
On the international front, UAW Vice President Nate Gooden, who holds
a seat on the DaimlerChrysler AG Supervisory Board, used his position
to argue for corporate neutrality at Freightliner. With support from fellow
board members who are representatives of IG Metall, one of Germany's powerful
metalworkers unions, Gooden persuaded the company to accept a card check
process with no threats or intimidation against workers.
Card checks were scheduled to take place at the Gastonia and Cleveland
plants in January 2003. The UAW had 14 days to get a majority of Freightliner
workers to sign cards authorizing the UAW as their sole collective bargaining
Region 8 Director Gary Casteel and Assistant Director Donny Bevis, as
well as many Region 8 staff members, hurried to North Carolina to support
the organizing effort and meet with Freightliner workers. Despite snowstorms
and hazardous driving conditions, paralyzing much of the area on Jan.
16-17, a majority signed cards to join the UAW.
"The Freightliner Cleveland UAW volunteer organizing committee was
awesome," said Vice President Bob King, who directs the UAW's Organizing
Department. "Their dedication, commitment and enthusiasm clearly
were driving factors in their victory."
Steve Beaver, who helped spearhead the volunteer
organizing committee from the very beginning, was on cloud nine. "Don't
ever say it can't be done. You got the proof right here," he said.
UAW Region 8 is currently running campaigns at the Freightliner plants
in High Point, N.C. and Gaffney, S.C.