Freightliner employees ratify contract

Feeling angry and betrayed by management, many union workers at Portland heavy truck manufacturer Freightliner voted reluctantly July 6 to accept a new three-year collective bargaining agreement.

Four unions representing 1,100 employees were involved in the voting — Machinists Lodge 1005, Teamsters Local 305, Painters District Council 5 and Service Employees Local 49. Any one union rejecting the deal — described by the company as “its last, best, and final offer” — would have resulted in an immediate walkout. That’s because on June 25, workers voted by a 95 percent margin to reject that offer and to strike.

Members of the Machinists Union met at Mt. Hood Community College’s football stadium. After a two-and-a-half-hour presentation, they voted 369 to 366 to accept the package. Two votes were invalid and one person didn’t cast a ballot, based on a sign-in sheet of 738 members.

“It’s the closest vote I’ve ever seen at Freightliner,” said Steve Hillesland, assistant to the directing business representative of Machinists District Lodge 24 and chief spokesman for the unions.

In separate meetings, Teamsters voted 103-35; Painters 68-41 and Service Employees 18-4 to accept the deal.

“We were able to restructure the previous offer to free up some money for better raises and eliminate increases on medical insurance co-payments,” Hillesland said.

The previous contract expired at the end of June, and at the stroke of midnight July 1 — even as negotiations continued with a federal mediator — Freightliner, a subsidiary of German automaker DaimlerChrysler AG, canceled all health insurance benefits for its union employees and told them via letter that there would be no work without a contract.

The unions held off on picketing because the plant, located on Swan Island in North Portland, was idle that week for a scheduled summer (unpaid) maintenance shutdown.

Bargaining was held during the July 4 weekend, and a second offer was brought to the membership with a “do pass” recommendation by labor negotiators. The first proposal also was recommended by the respective union bargaining committees.

The new contract provides a wage increase of $1.50 an hour the first year, and 50 cents an hour in each of the second and third years. Top scale for Machinists will go from the current $19.05 an hour to $20.55 an hour.

Freightliner will add 20 cents an hour to the pension plans in each of the second and third years. The current contribution is $3.45 an hour based on an eight-hour workday.

There will be no increases in out-of-pocket payments for health insurance, but in exchange, workers had to give up their Machinists dental plan in lieu of a Freightliner plan that future retirees will be eligible to participate in.

Wage scales for the other union crafts vary, but the Teamsters and Painters will receive the same increases as the Machinists. Janitors represented by Local 49 will get half that amount.

In the first proposal, Freightliner insisted the 21 union janitors take a $3-an-hour wage cut over three years.

Hillesland said improvements also were made in vacation scheduling, bereavement and family leave lost-time language, in addition to beating back a full two-tier wage system, mandatory overtime and flex hours.

Freightliner also committed to keep the plant open.

Still, bargaining committee members weren’t happy with the proposal, but they were convinced it was all Freightliner was willing to give up.

“I was at the table. I read the other side. I am not satisfied with this proposal. But there ain’t no more to give,” one committee member told the membership.

During a question and answer period at the Machinists meeting, many were bitter that the company — which reported first-quarter operating profits in its truck and bus manufacturing division of $329 million — up from $51 million in the same period a year ago, did not return $3 an hour in concessions employees agreed to in 2001 when the company lost $1.2 billion.

The union employees didn’t have to open the contract in 2001, but they did so amid threats by then newly-hired chief executive officer Rainer Schmueckle that he would close the facility — and only after promises to restore the cuts once the tide turned.

Six months after that vote [Machinists approved it 762-227], Schmueckle did, in fact, close the parts plant, putting 280 people out of work.

Through 1999, Freightliner employed nearly 2,300 union workers running three shifts in Portland. Today, it still is Portland’s largest manufacturing employer, but with only 1,100 workers. Another 2,000 non-union employees work at its corporate headquarters, also in Portland.

The truck manufacturing plant is now bulging at the seams with back orders on its military and Western Star trucks, leading union officials to believe the company will soon call back or hire as many as 500 employees.

“They’ve already been calling people back,” Hillesland said. “There has been talk of starting a second shift.”

The issue of recalling laid-off workers was another bone of contention among union members.

Under the new contract, recalled workers will have to return at a lesser wage than they earned when they left — and new hires will start at a lower wage than before, $12 an hour. Hillesland said those who were laid off at journey-level wages will return at $14 an hour, with $1 an hour raises every six months until they reach top scale. New hires will receive 50 cent an hour raises every six months.

“I think it’s a win-win,” Hillesland summed up. “Freightliner gets to keep making trucks and our guys get to continue working. We got back $2.90 of the $3 we gave up. A majority of our members decided it wasn’t worth striking over a dime.”

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