“Free Trade” and Mass Layoffs in Portland, OR

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On April 14th in Portland Oregon, at the doors of NAFTA-loving Democratic Senator Ron Wyden’s office, as many as 300 trade unionists came out in a spirited rally representing occupations that ranged from nurses to longshoremen. They were there to protest mass layoffs at a Daimler-Chrysler owned plant that manufactures Freightliner trucks. They were also demanding that Senator Wyden vote against the renewal of Fast Track which eliminates Congressional review, mark-up and oversight of trade agreements, while giving large corporations special access to trade negotiators. These trade unionists saw a direct connection between the mass layoffs and the free trade policies Fast Track has helped to mold.

Over 800 living-wage jobs were lost on March 29 at the Daimler-Chrysler plant, almost half of its workforce. In all, 632 members of Machinists Local 1005, 65 members of Painters Local 1094, 94 members of Teamsters Local 305, and 11 members of Service Employees Local 49 were given the axe with no expectation of recall. This blow was part of a national round of layoffs of up to 4,000 workers involved in the manufacture of Freightliner Trucks.

The company claims these layoffs were necessary because of an expected fall in North American truck demand after a surge of orders preceding the passing of higher emission standards by the EPA on January 1st. Nevertheless, Freightliner expects to make a profit in 2007 and a new buying spree of trucks is expected in 2009. The real reason for the mass layoffs is that Freightliner wants to move its operations from the heavily-unionized North American plants to Mexico where the work force is relatively low cost and more easily exploitable. While claiming financial hardship as the reason behind its mass layoff, the company was spending $300 million to build a plant in Mexico. Although Freightliner is doing well, they are trying to up their profit further by driving down their employees’ working and living conditions.

It is big business’ need to increase its profit at the working classes expense, driven by the dog-eat-dog practices of international capitalist competition, that has been the motivating force behind  free trade policies such as NAFTA. In Oregon alone, up to 68,000 jobs have been lost since 1994 due to NAFTA-style policies, according to the Oregon Fair Trade Campaign. For the workers in countries where these jobs have been outsourced to, living and working conditions have deteriorated to intolerable levels as was exposed in the recent revolutionary movement in Mexico. Internationally, workers have the same interests in opposing the “race to the bottom” that big business and its representatives in government are imposing on us.

At the Daimler-Chrysler plant in Portland, most of the workers with high seniority are being kept on – for now – to make Western Star brand trucks.The sting of the mass layoff was also eased with promises of a “Transition Team” composed of both union officials and management, to line up other employers to hire fired workers. However, the national experience of such “transitions” after a mass lay off in manufacturing is that many if not most of the workers are unable to find a job with comparable pay and benefits. These Portland workers who put together Freightliner trucks for years have been betrayed.

If the unions don’t prepare for a fight, there is nothing to prevent Western Star from moving its operations to a cheaper labor market like Freightliner did and laying off the remaining workers at the Daimler-Chrysler plant. Nationally, unless the union membership starts exercising its power at the point of production to combat the effects of globalization, there is nothing to prevent the corporations from wiping out any hope for most American workers of ever having decent paying jobs with good benefits.

What the unions need is a class struggle perspective that breaks from any notion of “teamwork” with the bosses, that gains its strength from the democratic involvement of the rank and file, and that fights to win, using all the tactics available to the labor movement, including strikes and occupations. Furthermore, the movement needs to co-ordinate such actions with workers in other countries as well. The capitalists have their version of globalization. The labor movement needs to develop its own in order to combat international big business.

The labor movement must rely on the working class’ own strength, independent of the capitalists and their politicians. As one Teamster, Gary Bills of Local 305, put it to the crowd at the April 14th rally, “It doesn’t matter what they do [referring to the Democrats such as Wyden], what matters is what we do!” The strong showing of members from a multitude of unions at this rally testifies to the potential of militant rank and file struggle against future layoffs.

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