www ISR
For ISR updates, send us your Email Address

Back to home page

ISR Issue 58, March–April 2008


Standing up to union-busting in the South

Five defiant UAW members are fighting to win back their jobs


ADD CLEVELAND, North Carolina, to the long list of Southern towns where organized labor has had to fight for the most basic workers’ rights. Five members of United Auto Workers Local 3520 were terminated April 3, 2007, by truck maker Freightliner after they led a legal strike the day before. Nearly a year later, they’re still fighting for their jobs—but now with the help of a growing solidarity campaign. They’ve also had to contend with a local union president who, rather than support the struggle, has joined management’s attack on the five—including calling on police to arrest one of the workers for “trespassing” at his own union meeting.

The themes of the Freightliner Five story will be familiar with anyone who knows labor history in the South—particularly North Carolina, where just 3 percent of workers are in unions. Racism has been blatantly used by employers to keep workers divided. Attempts to overcome these divisions through unionization have met bitter resistance from employers and, oftentimes, state repression. Ever since unions were crushed in the 1929 Gastonia, North Carolina, strike and an industrywide strike five years later, manufacturers have seen the state as an attractive proposition. Among them was the German company, then called Daimler-Benz, which bought up Freightliner in 1981. Despite Daimler’s practice of “comanagement” with unions at home under German law, the company’s American managers were determined to keep unions out.

It took a decade for the UAW to gain recognition at Freightliner’s Mt. Holly, North Carolina, plant, and a sixteen-day strike to win its first contract. And after Freightliner opened the Cleveland plant in 1989, it remained nonunion until 2003, when management, then under the DaimlerChrysler umbrella, consented to a “card-check” agreement as part of the parent corporation’s national contract with the UAW. Under this deal, the company consented to union recognition when a majority of the workers signed a card. About the same time, other Freightliner operations in North Carolina unionized under the same process—most importantly, a parts plant in Gastonia and a Thomas Built Buses plant outside Greensboro.

Spurring the organizing drives were wage cuts and health insurance cost increases imposed by an aggressive manager brought in by Daimler, Rainer Schmueckle. But Schmueckle managed to extract an agreement from the UAW before agreeing to card check: concessions at the Mt. Holly plant and limitations on the scope of the contract covering the Cleveland plant. (Details of these conditions surfaced in documents that came to light in a lawsuit conducted by anti-union employees).

Meanwhile, the members of the UAW’s Voluntary Organizing Committee (VOC) who would become part of the Freightliner Five went on to be elected to key positions in their new unions. Glenna Swinford, a cochair of the union’s civil and human rights committee, took up the issue of arbitrary terminations of workers charged with substance abuse in the 2003 contract talks, and was eventually elected to the local executive committee and the 2007 bargaining committee.

Franklin Torrence, who went to work at the plant soon after its opening in 1989, chaired the civil rights committee and regularly investigated incidents of racial and gender discrimination. Like Swinford, he’s a member of the NAACP, and is the founding president of North Carolina’s first chapter of the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists, and was also elected to Local 3520’s executive committee and the 2007 bargaining committee.
Another member of the VOC and local NAACP, Allen Bradley, became chair of the local’s skilled trades division and was elected to the 2007 bargaining committee. Bradley worked closely with another NAACP activist, Robert Whiteside, who won the election as the chair of the shop committee, the top union position on the factory floor. Management responded by eliminating the shop committee’s spacious union office and replacing it with a cramped space deep in the production area. The plant’s top boss, who met regularly with the previous shop chair, who is white, refused to meet with Whiteside.

Management’s harsh stance toward Whiteside only increased as he and other shop committee members, such as David Crisco, stepped up grievances, particularly over health and safety issues. Crisco, who was elected to the shop committee as soon as he had sufficient time in the plant, racked up a series of victories in the grievance process, including overturning his own termination—twice. Workers voted him onto the sixteen-member bargaining committee as well.

With a mandate to improve working conditions, the bargaining committee was demanding resolution of eighty-six health and safety issues when the contract expired March 31, 2007. Management walked away from the negotiating table, informing workers that Good Friday, a holiday under the previous contract, would now be a workday since no contract was in effect. Workers also reported that health care providers would not accept their company-paid insurance. Faced with this intransigence, the bargaining committee voted 12 to 0, with four abstentions, to call a previously authorized strike. With minutes, more than 1,500 workers were on the picket line.

It was then that Local 3520 President George Drexel stepped in. He sent a voice message to workers announcing that the strike was unauthorized and that they should return to work. Meanwhile, Freightliner terminated eleven members of the bargaining committee. Six of the eleven were allowed to return to their jobs after signing a “last-chance” agreement and a letter stating that they were misled into the strike by Whiteside, Swinford, Bradley, Torrence, and Crisco. Since then the UAW International has been pursuing the reinstatement of the five, which is set to go before an arbitrator sometime this year.

For his part, Drexel, who was elected independently of the union militants’ slate, advocated for workers to accept a concessionary contract offer that had triggered the strike. It was initially rejected, but later passed in an in-plant vote from which the terminated workers were barred. Afterward, Drexel targeted the five for alleged misconduct related to the brief job action. His attempt to suspend them from union office was voted down by the local’s members. His second effort to remove them from office failed when an elected union commission rejected his charges after a weeklong trial.

Now Drexel aims to remove the five from the ranks of the union altogether. In what UAW constitutional experts claim is a violation of union rules and procedures, Drexel now claims the five are no longer members in good standing. The move came even though the local union had even accepted back dues from the five, and despite it being UAW practice that workers fighting a termination case don’t have to pay dues at all.
The five challenged Drexel’s actions at Local 3520’s monthly meeting on February 17. When they were told to leave or face charges of trespassing, they complied. But outside the building, one of the Cleveland Five, Allen Bradley, took a photo of a police officer who was confronting another worker. The cop grabbed Bradley and arrested him.

Drexel’s vendetta against the five terminated workers may appear to be an internal union wrangle; in fact, it provides cover for Freightliner management, which wants to send a message that any worker who stands up for his or her rights will be dealt with in the harshest manner, whether unionized or not.

If Freightliner succeeds in terminating the five, it will give employers in the most union-hostile area of the U.S. yet another weapon in their endless war on labor. That’s why the Freightliner Five have received broad support from union members and social justice activists in the South and across the United States. Their supporters include Ken Riley, president of International Longshoremen’s Association Local 1422 in Charleston, South Carolina, the union that successfully defended five workers who faced jail time for walking a picket line. Donna DeWitt, president of the South Carolina AFL-CIO, also personally supports this fight.

But the importance of the Freightliner Five struggle goes well beyond the South. Employers are already forcing workers to bear the costs of the economic crisis, and will accelerate their attacks on unions and workers’ rights. A victory at Freightliner would be an important rallying point for everyone who wants to hold the line.

The Freightliner Five are organizing solidarity meetings around the U.S. to raise money in order to keep up the fight. For more information, and to make a donation, visit

Lee Sustar is the labor editor of Socialist Worker and a frequent contributor to the ISR.
Back to top