The Freightliner Five are demanding Justice
Lee Sustar reports on the ongoing campaign of the Freightliner Five to win back their jobs after being terminated for leading a lawful walkout—and to restore their membership in the United Auto Workers union.
As Arbitrators consider their challenge to unjust termination from a Freightliner truck plant in North Carolina, five United Auto Workers (UAW) union leaders have appealed to the Public Review Board (PRB) to be reinstated in as members and officers in their local union.
The workers—Robert Whiteside, Franklin Torrence, Glenna Swinford, Allen Bradley and David Crisco—were fired by Freightliner for leading the evening shift in a walkout April 2, 2007, immediately after UAW Local 3520’s contract had expired. The job action ended after Local 3520 President George Drexel sent a recorded phone message to members telling them to report to work as normal.
Following the walkout at the Cleveland, N.C., plant, Freightliner terminated the Five—all of whom are members of the union’s elected bargaining committee. The company claimed the job action was a contract violation—even though management had informed the bargaining committee that no contract was in place, that the Good Friday holiday was canceled and refused to meet with the committee.
Since their termination, the workers have been fighting to get their jobs back—and have gotten the support of union activists from across the U.S. as well as from Germany, where Freightliner’s parent company, Daimler, is based.
The struggle highlights the challenges that labor has long faced in the South, where racism has long been used to divide workers and keep unions weak—especially in North Carolina, where union membership is just three percent, the lowest in the U.S. The Freightliner Five helped forge a diverse local union leadership that could meet that test. Whiteside and Torrence are African American; they, along with Bradley and Swinford, are active members of the NAACP. All were members of the Voluntary Organizing Committee that brought in the UAW, except Crisco, who was hired after the plant’s first union contract was signed in 2003.
After their termination, the Five were able to obtain unemployment benefits, but those have long since run out. The struggle has been sustained though solidarity tours that have traveled to a number of cities, including Detroit, Chicago, New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Seattle, Portland, Ore., and Burlington, Vt.
But the Freightliner Five have had to take on their own union officials a well. Drexel, the local union president, has pursued a conciliatory approach to management and endorsed a concessionary contract that was voted down before being passed with few improvements. Soon afterward, Drexel tried to suspend the Five from their elected positions, but failed. He then orchestrated a union trial of the Five in November 2007, but union members acquitted them in a vote.
According to Allen Bradley, Drexel saw the Five as rivals for the leadership of the local. Whiteside, Swinford and Torrence are all members of the local’s executive committee; Whiteside is chair of the shop committee, and Swinford and Torrence are co-chairs of the local’s civil and human rights committee. Bradley is chair of the local’s skilled trades division, and Crisco is a committeeman (the UAW term for shop steward). Even after they were terminated by Freightliner, the Five continued to attend local union and executive committee meetings.
But Drexel finally found another way to expel the Five by arbitrarily denying them membership in the union. Even though it is standard UAW practice to waive union dues payments of terminated members who have filed a grievance, the Five decided to take no chances. Five days before Local 3520’s meeting of February 16, the local financial secretary, Shayne Brown, even accepted back dues from the workers.
“There was never any issue of us owing dues until January 2008, when someone in the local office tried to say we owed it,” said Allen Bradley. “We paid within days even though we weren’t officially notified. We paid six months’ dues, but we were told that we had not paid dues and that our membership had lapsed. They are trying to take away our membership on a technicality.”
Bradley continued: “The UAW constitution, in Article 45, Section 1, specifically states that a shop committee person terminated by the employer, and who has a pending grievance, remains a member and can run for any open office. That’s pretty cut and dry.”
Despite paying the dues in question, the Five were barred from the February 16 union meeting. Allen Bradley was arrested for trespassing even though he complied with a request to leave the building—a police officer grabbed him because he photographed a cop harassing a fellow worker. After several court appearances, however, the trespassing charge was dropped.
To try and win reinstatement in the union, the Five then filed suit against Local 3520 in federal court. The judge has withheld ruling until internal union appeals were exhausted, but may make the ruling soon.
Next, while working with UAW representatives on their arbitration case, the Five appealed their ouster from the union to the UAW International Executive Board (IEB). Yet on June 17, even as an attorney for the UAW prepared to represent the Five in the arbitration hearings, the IEB upheld their expulsion from the union.
The IEB’s ruling flies in the face of both the UAW constitution and its practice, argued Ellis Boal, a labor attorney who is representing the Five before the federal judge and the Public Review Board (PRB). The IEB based its decision on the argument that the Five hadn’t paid dues in April 2007, and that they hadn’t formally certified their interest in remaining union members. In his appeal, Boal pointed out that Freightliner payroll records show that the Five did pay union dues in April, and continued to sign in to union meetings, and had been verbally informed by the financial secretary that they didn’t have to pay dues.
Still, the local IEB upheld Local 3520’s decision—and didn’t even bother to investigate. “Normally the IEB conducts factual hearings, but because of IEB prejudice we are asking that the PRB itself hold this one,” Boal wrote. “The prejudice is demonstrated in two ways: (a) According to a witness statement in the record, the local expelled the Five on the recommendation of Eunice Stokes, administrative assistant to [UAW President] Ron Gettelfinger, given in a phone conversation in January, when Stokes did not know and did not inquire about all the facts, and (b) the IEB ordered the trial last fall to go ahead on the theory that the Five lied to members in the strike by saying it was authorized, though the charge didn’t allege that and every witness on both sides agreed at the trial it wasn’t true.”
Rather than expel the Freightliner Five, the UAW should be putting them on tour to raise solidarity funds for their campaign to get their jobs back—and to build support for organizing the South. Instead, the effort to support the Five has been a grassroots, rank-and-file campaign, as leaders of many unions refuse to get involved for fear of offending the UAW.
The Five and their supporters hope to use upcoming Labor Day event to publicize their struggle and raise solidarity funds. With funds running low and legal bills mounting, building that solidarity is more urgent than ever.
What you can do
For more information about the Freightliner Five, or to contribute to their campaign, visit their No Justice, No Solidarity Web site:
Also on the Web site are model resolutions of support for the Five that can be used by unions and organizations. Many local unions have already passed such resolutions and raised funds to support this struggle, but more is needed.
Socialist Worker’s “Union Busting at Freightliner” provides more details about the case:
—socialistworker.org, August 8, 2008