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March 13, 2009
GASTONIA - It was a different kind of Mexican standoff.
Roughly 75 of the 240 workers being laid off from the Freightliner components and logistics plant Friday showed up for their final day of work wearing sombreros - a symbolic protest against the truckmaker's decision to open a new $300 million plant in Mexico while layoffs cripple the company's American work force.
"It is frustrating to know that all this is going on, knowing they're building these plants down there," said Robert Mullinax. "They're giving those people a chance to work and not giving us the opportunity to do the same. It's like they're just shutting the door in our face."
Freightliner laid off about 500 workers at its Mount Holly plant and about 600 at its plant in Rowan County Friday, said Scott McAllister, president of United Auto Workers Local 5286. Another 80 will lose their jobs at the Gastonia plant on May 8.
McAllister said sporting the sombreros was a spontaneous gesture.
"It's kind of funny in a way, but it's serious, because that's their way of showing the company their frustration," he said.
Jerry Womble and his wife will both lose their jobs at the Gastonia plant in May. Womble wore a sombrero to work Friday to send a message to company management. He said employees who sported the large-brimmed hats were not disciplined.
"I think the supervisors and management decided that the best thing to do today was to leave them alone, to not bother them and let them express their feelings," Womble said.
On Feb. 27, Freightliner parent company Daimler Trucks North America opened a $300 million manufacturing plant in Saltillo, Mexico, creating 1,600 jobs and an additional 1,100 jobs nearby for suppliers, according to a Daimler news release.
"They could have taken the money they spent on that plant there and instead invested it into new technology into Cleveland and Mount Holly," Womble said. "That's their goal, to get everything made over in Mexico. I just think we're not going to stand a chance unless our government does something."
McAllister said the Daimler employees in Mexico earn the equivalent of $5.44 per hour in wages and benefits.
Womble said the service industry now comprises the bulk of American jobs, and the elimination of better-paying manufacturing positions will continue to weaken the economy.
"Pretty soon, it's going to get to the point that no one in America is going to be able to afford to buy anything because we won't have any jobs," he said.
A contract to build Coca-Cola trucks at the Mount Holly plant saved about 120 workers there, who will continue to make four trucks per day. A Daimler spokeswoman told The Gazette that she couldn't confirm details of a customer's order, but Womble said Coca-Cola told the company it would only buy Americaan-made trucks.
"If more companies would insist on American-made trucks or American-made products, that would obviously keep more jobs in the United States," he said.
Womble and his wife are prepared to lose their jobs in May. Both of their children are grown, and they've reduced their expenses as much as they can. Other workers may face a more difficult transition.
"I think we'll be OK, but there's a lot of people who are probably in a situation where they're not going to be OK because their debt far exceeds what they're going to get in unemployment income," Womble said.
Layoffs are nothing new for many Freightliner employees. Womble was laid off for about six months in 2001 and later recalled.
"You kind of know what you're getting into when you come to work at Freightliner," said Billy Dover, a five-axis laser operator at the Mount Holly plant. "They have a history of laying off and calling workers back. Right now, the fear is they won't be calling us back."
Dover, who wore his sombrero at the Gastonia plant Friday, said laid off workers hope the message reaches executives at Daimler. He doesn't fault the local bosses - who he says had no input in the company's staffing decisions.
"I don't blame the management here, because it was not their decision," Dover said. "It was a corporate decision to build that big plant down in Mexico."