By Don McIntosh
PORTLAND — Hugs and handshakes rippled through Daimler Trucks North America’s Swan Island plant Dec. 13 as 51 mostly grey-haired retirees in orange safety vests made their way through the assembly line, visiting co-workers they hadn’t seen in years, and seeing once again the place where they spent decades of their lives.
The massive former Freightliner truck plant is a secure facility, behind fences, a turnstile, and a guard house. But on this Wednesday, plant manager Mike Foley gave the order to wave retirees through, and welcomed them back personally in the employee break room. After lunch, retirees roamed freely throughout the plant, reuniting with former coworkers and observing the ways the plant has changed.
Quieter, and less crowded, some said. Even as late as 2000, the plant employed over 3,000 workers assembling Freightliner’s over-the-road trucks. Today, there are about 570, and they make Daimler’s heavy-duty Western Star line of trucks. Daimler shifted Freightliner production to Mexico and North Carolina, and the last Freightliner rolled off the Portland truck plant in 2007.
Back in the day, old-timers recall, “mother Freightliner” was like a big family. Fathers and sons, husbands and wives, cousins, and nephews staffed the assembly line. There were sometimes layoffs, but these were (and still are) union jobs with benefits that you could buy a home and raise a family on. You started at age 20, worked 30-plus years, and retired with a pension.
“The retirees are the guys that built this plant and gave up a lot over the years to get where we’re at now,” said material handler Matt Milburn, a member of Teamsters Local 305. Matt, together with his brother Luke, walked their father Rick through the plant during the visit; he retired from Freightliner in 2005.
“My dad’s been talking about it for days,” Milburn said by phone Dec. 15. It meant a lot, seeing former coworkers for the first time in over a dozen years. Seeing retirees was a boost to the spirits of current employees too. “You won’t find one union member down here that didn’t think that was cool that they let them down here,” Milburn said.
Seeing retirees looking healthy and happy also showed active members that there’s a light at the end of the assembly line tunnel, and a reward for long years of hard work, said former Machinists Lodge 1005 shop steward Dilbert Greer. In 2013, after 35 years on the job, Greer became the last of his family members to retire from the plant.
“We’re all happy as clams because we have good pensions,” Greer said. “It just tickled the hell out of all of us to be able to walk through and see Mother Freightliner again. It was our bread and butter forever.”
Greer credited plant management for the trust placed in employees and visitors.
“The thing that shocked me the most was they said, ‘Well you guys go on out and enjoy yourself, go wherever you want.’ I was expecting they were going to take us around in groups, shackle us all together, go where they wanted you to go and talk to who they wanted you to talk to. This was very free. And it went off without a hitch.”
Though employees were at work on the shop floor, visiting retirees didn’t get in the way of making trucks, said Lloyd Tolar, who’s still on the job after 31 years. “Retirees were mindful that we were in production,” Tolar said, and kept visits short.
Even just for a few minutes, it was a very positive experience to see old and familiar faces, Tolar said.
“Retirees need to know that we appreciate them,” Tolar said.
“I went down there to see my work brothers,” said Painters Local 1094 member Greg Fast, who retired in 2016 after 39 years. “You see them on Facebook but it’s still not the real McCoy… Everybody was surprised and had a smile on their face. They were glad to see us.”
The idea for the walk-around event originated on a private Facebook group that Carol Hassebroek set up last year for current and former truck plant workers and their families.
“The intent was to bring people together that hadn’t seen each other in a long time,” Hassebroek told the Labor Press.
Hassebroek retired last February after 37 years, and at the retiree walk-around, she saw former coworkers she hadn’t seen since 1981.
“Everybody was just smiling and happy. I have never been a huggy person, but I was hugging everybody,” Hassebroek said.
Hassebroek said Machinists chief steward Mike Housley helped make the visit happen, together with office support staff Ferrol Walton and Brenda Rendon, and of course, plant manager Mike Foley. There’s talk of doing another one next year.
“It gives the people on the shop floor hope,” Hassebroek said, that there’s life after work, even after physically demanding work, on concrete, in steel-toed boots. “You see someone that’s been out of there 30 years, and they still look okay, they can still walk. It gives you hope.”