Fired UAW Organizers: Shortcuts Hurt Unions in South

Pounding the pavement in a two-month tour of cities throughout the Midwest and West Coast, four fired United Auto Workers members have been busy speaking to supporters in a quest to get their jobs back.

The workers are members of the "Freightliner Five" (also called the "Cleveland Five"), who sat on UAW Local 3520's bargaining committee and were fired by truck manufacturer Freightliner last April after leading a strike against givebacks at their plant in Cleveland, North Carolina (see Labor Notes December 2007).

Questions about the effect concessionary bargaining and shortcut neutrality agreements may have on the future of new member organizing in the South are frequently raised at their meetings. And while the tale of their firing grabs the most attention, the less-told story of how they became union members in the first place reveals important challenges for today's unions.

Forging a New Union

Local 3520 drew its name from the street address of the Methodist church union supporters where met at twice week during the plant organizing campaign seven years ago. It was a hopeful start for a local built out of a hard-fought struggle to unionize in right-to-work North Carolina. Four of the Freightliner Five, Allen Bradley, Glenna Swinford, Franklin Torrence, and Robert Whiteside, were members of the volunteer organizing committee that helped unionize the plant with the UAW. (The fifth, David Crisco, joined the union later.)

After organizing a nearby Freightliner plant in Mt. Holly, North Carolina, in 1990, the UAW attempted to recruit workers in the Cleveland plant throughout the 1990s. At first workers weren't receptive. According to Whiteside, Freightliner pegged wages at the plant to the Mt. Holly factory's pay scale to tamp down support for the UAW.

It wasn't until Freightliner cut wages and made workers pay out of pocket for health care in 2002 that many at the Cleveland plant felt a change of heart. "We'd just taken a $1.15-an-hour pay cut but Mt. Holly didn't have to, even with the market downturn," Bradley said. "The UAW held an organizing meeting three months later and people attended. We could see the difference between union and non-union plants."

The 1998 merger between Chrysler and Freightliner's parent company Daimler added what should have been a boost to organizing. Freightliner now came under neutrality agreements the UAW had brokered with Chrysler.

Soon after, the union lost a National Labor Relations Board election at the Gastonia, North Carolina, Freightliner parts plant by a slim margin of 24 votes. The case for card-check organizing at Cleveland -- where a union is recognized when a majority sign authorization cards -- must have seemed certain to the UAW. After the Gastonia defeat, UAW officials told the volunteer organizing committee that they had won a neutrality agreement for the Cleveland plant.

Choosing a Shortcut

For workers at Freightliner, the card-check neutrality agreement the company and the union reached was a double-edged sword. While it gave the organizing committee a guarantee that their work would not be in vain, it came at a big cost -- pre-arranged concessions.

Because their plant was larger and more profitable, Bradley thought they could get a better contract than workers at Mt. Holly. But members of the local's first bargaining committee said they didn't know the neutrality agreement that helped win them a union also guaranteed they would be locked into standards beneath that of other unionized Freightliner workers.

"Once we got to the bargaining table, there was no profit sharing, no cost-of-living raises, no restrictions on overtime," Swinford said. "The company had an unfair advantage because they knew we'd be spinning our wheels."

Bradley and Swinford still believe, though, that card check helped them avoid the intimidation that hopeful union supporters face when holding NLRB elections.

"We support card check 100 percent; it's a great tool for organizing," Torrence said. "We're just opposed to the sweetheart deals that unions are making with corporations because it takes away the power of the local union."

The impact of the pre-conditions continues. When the local bargaining committee began to negotiate the next contract last spring, the terms of the years-old neutrality agreement still applied. When local officers tried to improve the contract for their members, they found the neutrality agreement pre-conditions holding them back.

Union, Yes, But How?

In organizing Freightliner, the UAW was able to overcome obstacles that often plague unions when organizing in the South. But as the UAW looks to expand below the Mason-Dixon line, everything from concessions accepted by unions in the North to wages in non-unionized plants can hamper organizing.

After the UAW reached concessionary agreements with Detroit's Big 3 auto manufacturers last fall that cut wages for new hires in half, the Five said they grew even more concerned about how their union could continue organizing in Southern states and at companies outside of pattern agreements, like Freightliner.

"Why would anybody working in a factory in the South already making $14 an hour agree to a union and pay dues?" asked Swinford. "Workers in the South have typically been paid dollars less than the rest of the auto industry. We see the Big 3 companies paying $14 an hour, and wonder if we'd have to drop to $12 or less if we kept that gap."

While the Freightliner Five await UAW arbitration to see if they can keep their positions in the union, they remain hopeful that union organizing in the South can succeed, even after the raft of challenges they've faced.

"I want to see the South organized because we need representation, fair contracts, better health and safety, and pensions," Whiteside said. "We hope the UAW will be a large part of that. The UAW will have to look at its style of organizing and the last 15 years of concessionary negotiations."

And no better place to start, Bradley said, than Cleveland, North Carolina. "If the UAW is successful in resolving this problem of five local officers terminated during bargaining, that'll be a hell of a win for organizing in the South," he said.

Local Officers Out of Work, Out of a Union

On February 16, the Freightliner Five's quest became an even more uphill battle when they were forcibly removed from a monthly membership meeting.

Allen Bradley, Glenna Swinford, Franklin Torrence, and Robert Whiteside were attending the UAW 3520 membership meeting when President George Drexel called police to escort them out on grounds that they were no longer members of the local. Bradley was arrested on trespassing charges after lingering to take a picture of a fellow member, an off-duty police officer, discussing the situation with on-duty officers.

In the UAW constitution, membership can be called into question six months after a member is fired. That deadline arrived in October for the Five, who were careful to keep their membership in good standing throughout the fall and winter by attending every membership and executive board meeting. The local's financial secretary, Shane Brown, assured members that their continued presence at meetings and verbal requests to remain members was sufficient to stay on the rolls.

Making Exceptions

But the UAW suddenly dropped them from the rolls in early February, claiming they didn't properly signal to the financial secretary their intent to remain members. According to their lawyer (and Labor Notes staff member) Ellis Boal, other members of the local were not subject to this reading of the union's constitution.

"Had there been a real lapse of their good standing, it should have occurred on the last day of October," Boal said. "But at the union trial in November, Brown testified the Five were in good standing. Indeed they must have been in good standing to even be allowed a trial."

Boal said the Five would fight the decision in a union adjudication. What started as a request that their union help get their jobs back has become a campaign to keep them in the union they helped to build.


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