Last night I went to an event in Portland to support the Freightliner Five, five workers who were fired last April at the Freightliner Cleveland, North Carolina plant after leading or supporting a strike against concessions. The workers were members of UAW Local 3520. The event was sponsored by the International Socialist Organization and is part of a nationwide solidarity tour organized to support these workers.
The Local’s origins and the strike reflect both the militancy and tensions present when workers organize—and especially when southern workers organize—and the tremendous need and interest we all share in southern union organizing. Breaking the back of the anti-union forces in the south will mean that a new stage has been reached in American unionism and new possibilities will open up for civil rights and democratic movements. The immediate questions we face concern whether or not unions and community organizations are prepared for these struggles and these developments and what political forces have to exist and align in order to guarantee victories and extend union campaigns.
The Local was founded in an anti-concessions fight in 2002 and, to hear the two Freightliner workers tell it, was deeply connected to the community in its early days. The Local came into formal existence through a card check under especially tough circumstances. This card check arrangement also brought with it limits on what the workers could achieve in terms of parity with other unionized Freightliner workers. The Local therefore came into existence with some deep-set divisions in its ranks.
These divisions showed up—and the workers were fired—during the second (2007) contract negotiations. During these negotiations there was a split in the Local and a serious breach between the International Union’s negotiating committee and the Local Union’s bargaining team. With 22 articles still open in their local contract, and with pressure coming from the company and the International Union to accept concessions, the Local’s strike committee called a short strike without the International Union’s sanction. That strike ended when the Local Union President called workers back to work. The International Union won an extension of the contract and eleven workers were fired. Six of these eleven were later returned to work. Five of the eleven were Local Union officers. The contract was approved in a re-vote organized by the International Union. Since that time, say the workers I heard last night, the Local Union has lost membership and concessions continue to be given by Local Union officers or International Union staff.
You can read about this struggle at http://justice4five.com/index.html. The fired workers still have some legal hoops to jump through and they need our help. A local branch of the NAACP is serving as the custodian for collected funds.
Every lost strike or struggle in the south hurts all of us because such losses strengthen the hand of the anti-union and reactionary forces and encourage corporations to move to low-wage areas and rip-off these communities. Every union concession won by corporations helps to redistribute wealth upwards and weakens unions--the first line of defense workers have.
What the speakers last night did not seem to fully grasp is the need for self-discipline in workplace struggles and a need for stronger and better union political action. In an environment where pattern bargaining has practically disappeared, local unions may need to bite the bullet on some wage and working conditions issues for a time in order to preserve even basic industrial unity. Local unions cannot remain aloof from political struggles—especially in the south—because this may be the only way we can make up any lost ground in the immediate future and because our only hope is in finding the successful mix of union organizing and aggressive and inclusive social change. To say as one speaker last night did that change only comes from union or workplace organizing is shortsighted. It is also shortsighted to hold the union and the company equally responsible for all the bad things which have occurred so far at the plant. It should be a primary task of local unions to build aggressive organizing and political programs, to win people to these programs and to hold international unions accountable for supporting and carrying out those programs.