‘Cleveland Five’ fight for their jobs
By J.R. Munoz-McNally, email@example.com
Wednesday, December 5, 2007
Robert Whiteside is a workingman’s workingman.
But exactly eight months ago, he found himself among the ranks of the unemployed.
The father of three, Statesville resident, erstwhile employee of the Cleveland Freightliner plant and union leader was fired, ostensibly for allowing what the powers to be said was an unauthorized strike.
Since then Whiteside and four other members of the United Auto Workers Local 3520’s negotiating team have been fighting to get their jobs back.
The group – which includes fellow Local 3520 officers Allen Bradley, David Crisco, Glenna Swinford and Franklin Torrence – has come to be known as “the Cleveland Five” and they have come to symbolize flaws in the labor union system.
“We did nothing wrong,” said Whiteside, “except to have the audacity to do what a union local is supposed to do – stand up for its membership.”
The group members said they did exactly what the rank and file voted for when, on April 3, they called for members to go on strike.
The workers’ contract had expired at midnight on April 1, one day after the company had a massive layoff. Later that day, the UAW International leaders called on the local “to accept a package we had already voted to reject,” Torrence said.
“We were told to take this and ratify it and that ‘we could work out the open issues later,’ ” Torrence said
But the negotiating team saw right through that.
“There was nothing new and if we accepted the contract we would lose all our bargaining power,” Swinford said. “Once you ratify a contract, the deal’s over and you have what you have.”
And they didn’t think what they were given was fair.
“There were 22 open articles,” Bradley said. “And 86 sub-issues that involved health and safety matters. The contract was no good as it was.”
But, for reasons the five could only speculate on, the international arm of the UAW wanted the matter settled quickly.
Part of settlement involved workers agreeing to work only every other week to stave off even more layoffs.
“I think international wanted that so they could keep the union dues coming in,” Bradley said. “But what happened is that by cutting back their hours so much, they lost their status as full-time workers and lost most of the benefits they fought for in the contract in the first place.”
But at least the workers still had jobs.
Initially, all 11 members of Local 3520’s negotiating committee were fired. Six have been reinstated.
“We don’t know what happened with the others,” Torrence said. “It seems like there was something political going on, but we really don’t know.”
The five who have remained without a job are running out of resources. They had to fight to get unemployment benefits, which were initially denied. Those funds have since dried up.
The group also had to defend itself against internal charges brought by fellow union members alleging that the group “misled” the membership into going on strike.
And an arbitration meeting that was supposedly “guaranteed” to take place within eight weeks has still not happened. It’s been eight months.
If the arbitrator rules in their favor – whenever the hearing takes place – the best the five can hope for is back pay minus any unemployment benefits and pay from other jobs.
The five think the UAW International is hoping they fade away. One of the five – Crisco – has been forced to take another job.
“I guess they can drag this thing out until next summer,” Whiteside said.
“They are trying to starve us out,” Torrence said.
Whiteside said the experience has left him wondering if organized labor can survive.
“We are all pro-labor and we still believe in the solidarity of the union,” he said. “But the structure of the UAW has to change or it will squeeze the middle-class workers right out of it. It’s not supposed to be like this.”
The Cleveland Five has gotten the attention of labor groups all over the country. The NAACP has also staked out a position in support of the group.
“It is very strange for a members of a local to be forced to fight against their own union,” Whiteside said.
“But,” added Bradley, “Strange things have been happening with this union.”
From the No Justice, No Solidarity Web site:
We are members of the 2007 Bargaining Committee for United Auto Workers (UAW) local 3520, Cleveland, NC. On April 2, 2007 our Local’s Strike Committee voted to strike. Our International Union was of the opinion we should accept a weak contract offer. They tried to force us to take a contract with 22 open articles and 86 open Health and Safety issues back to our membership for ratification. The proposed contract if raitified by our membership as proposed by the Company would have been the first UAW 2 tier contract negotiated in a grossly profitable company. Frieghtliner LLC, was more profitable in 2006 than all other years combined, yet they wanted us to take contract concessions and the International UAW was OK with this.
We are/were employed by Freightliner LLC, at the Freightliner Truck Manufacturing Plant in Cleveland, N.C. On April 3rd, 2007 (5) five of our Bargaining Committee members were terminated by our employer along with (5) five other officers and (1) one rank and file member of our Union for instigating and/or supporting and/or participating in an unauthorized work stoppage. At the time of our terminations our collective bargaining agreement had expired. We thought our International Union would support us and do everything in their power to help us get reinstated to our jobs. What we didn’t realize was that the UAW is actually a passive, Company ran Union that has no desire to help their members. Our International Union, has in fact, done nothing to help or support us in our struggle for justice. They have encouraged our membership to illegally suspend us from our positions as officers of our local and encouraged them to put us on trial for conduct unbecoming a Union member.
The UAW promised us help at our Unemployment hearing . They told us an attorney would represent us at the hearing. Luckily, we retained an Attorney ourselves. We arrived at the hearing and our employer informed the special hearing commissioner that no Representative for the UAW would be there to assist us.
The other (5) five officers and the (1) one rank and file member of our Local that were terminated, were reinstated to their jobs in May but not before they were forced to sign Last chance, model employee agreements that don’t give the Union any leeway in reference to disciplinary action. This type of agreement is commonly referred to as a (stump your toe and out you go agreement) as it is easy for the Employer to terminate an employee under this agreement. At the writing of this article (1) one of the (5) five reinstated officers has been terminated and at least (1) one of the (6) six is facing threats of termination.
For more information, click here.