Machinists ‘pre-approve’ strike at Freightliner yard

Members of Machinists Lodge 1005 — by an overwhelming majority —voted to give “preliminary strike vote authority” to union leaders as they prepare for negotiations with Freightliner Corp.

More than 450 of the union’s 830 members employed at Portland-based Freightliner turned out for a Saturday meeting March 27 at the Teamsters Hall in Northeast Portland to discuss bargaining issues and formulate a negotiating plan.

The contract at Freightliner expires June 30. Negotiations open the first week of May.

“This is standard procedure. It doesn’t mean we’re going out on strike,” said Steve Hillesland, a business representative of Machinists District Lodge 24. “However, it is going to be probably the most difficult negotiations we’ve ever had at Freightliner. But we’re hopeful it will come to an acceptable conclusion.”

Lodge 1005 represents the majority of the nearly 1,100 workers at the truck manufacturing plant located at Swan Island in Northeast Portland. The Teamsters, Service Employees Local 49 and Sign Painters and Paint Makers Local 1094 also represent workers at Freightliner.

Three years ago, union workers easily ratified contracts that provided wage and pension increases, fully-paid health insurance benefits, signing bonuses and more.

But four months later the company — threatening to close or move the plant because of more than $1.2 billion in losses — came back to workers seeking concessions. The unions agreed to a contract amendment that trimmed wages by $2 an hour and cut bonuses, all future wage increases and other benefits.

Freightliner closed its Portland parts plant in mid-2002.

Prior to the parts plant shutdown, Freightliner employed nearly 2,800 workers at Swan Island, turning out 112 trucks a day. Today, employees complete 35 trucks a day. The product is different, too. Portland now manufactures Western Star and Freightliner-brand heavy-duty trucks and a large amount of vehicles for the U.S. military. The entire Western Star Trucks assembly plant relocated to Portland from Kelowna, B.C.

Hillesland couldn’t comment on the details of the March 27 meeting, but it’s safe to say union workers will seek the $2 wage cut they took in 2001, plus some, now that Freightliner’s parent company, Germany-based DaimlerChrysler has reported 14 percent growth from North American commercial vehicle operations — which include Freightliner, Sterling and Western Star trucks.

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