WE HAVE MOVED: Please visit The Union News blog: here.

Thursday, July 5, 2007

Portland strike hits Freightliner to protest globalism

Today is day three of the Machinists strike against Freightliner - the first since the 1970s. Some say the strike is about mandatory overtime and health benefits for retirees. But striking workers say the message is much larger. They believe they can alter the worldwide trend toward globalism. The machinists, weary of concessions and losing jobs to Freightliner plants elsewhere in the U.S. and Mexico, are making a stand in the twilight of America's Industrial Revolution. The strike, launched Tuesday during a previously planned plant shutdown, is expected to disrupt truck production starting today.

"They move our jobs out because the business is doing what they feel is better for themselves and that's ultimately to make more money. But at what cost?" asked Mike Hovde, 38, a member of the machinists, representing 670 of the company's 1,000 Portland workers.

The company did not respond to requests for comment. But a statement released earlier this week made its position clear: "The Portland Truck Manufacturing Plant is Freightliner's highest cost plant and operates at a significant cost disadvantage to Freightliner and competing manufacturers' facilities in other locations in North America."

Contract negotiations broke down late Monday when International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers District Lodge 24 members broke rank with union leaders, voting to reject an agreement that leaders had tentatively ratified. They also broke rank with the company's smaller unions, which had approved their contracts.

Now the company's smaller unions are honoring the machinists' strike. And so, with no response Wednesday from the company, workers anticipate disrupting truck production that was scheduled to resume today.

"We will not be in the plant tomorrow," Joe Kear, the machinists' business representative, said Wednesday. "We're expecting that the members of the other unions will honor the picket line."

Workers build about 38 trucks a day at Freightliner's Portland operation, which has roots dating to1929.

Workers like Can Huynh took jobs there at a time when they could envision their children one day following in their footsteps. Huynh said Freightliner has provided him and his family with a good life, yet his confidence in the company has eroded.

The company's Portland work force has shrunk from 2,600 in 1999 to 1,000 today. Workers accepted a pay cut in 2001 because of a downturn and poor business decisions. They were promised that their sacrifice "will not be forgotten," a slogan the union emblazoned on bumper stickers after the parts plant was shut down later that same year.

In March, the last Freightliner highway truck rolled off the Portland production line and with it nearly 800 jobs. Now the company's flagship rig is made in North Carolina and Mexico. The company is also building a second plant in Mexico. Competitors like International Harvester and Kenworth have long been there.

"This is a tough message to get across because it's contrary to our social responsibility, which is jobs, jobs, jobs," Freightliner Chief Operating Officer Roger Nielsen explained in a March interview. "It's a downward spiral to the point where companies say, 'I can't stay in business anymore' or 'I have to go where the competition is.' "

Now the company has painted a bold white line across the entrance to Freightliner's main Swan Island plant. On one side quietly loomed the decades-old plant. On the other sat a dozen workers with signs, moving their chairs each time the withering sun shifted their shade.

Machinist Bruce Hurt, 50, sporting red, white and blue suspenders over his cut-off SpongeBob T-shirt, said he would not be hurt by the proposed retiree health benefit changes. He's been with the company 21 years. But he volunteered for a four-hour shift on the picket line anyway.

"Back in the old days, the plant manager knew 99 percent of the names of the workers," Hurt said. "Now you just get the feeling that people could care less if you're here."