Daimler Truck Workers Are Strike-Ready in the Anti-Union South

The South has long been the Achilles heel of the American labor movement. The United Auto Workers are trying to make inroads — including with a heated contract fight between workers and bosses at the multinational corporation Daimler Truck North America.

Workers picket outside of a Ford Assembly plant during the United Auto Workers strike against the Big Three automakers on October 10, 2023 in Chicago, Illinois. (Scott Olson / Getty Images)

Autoworkers in the South are currently engaged in a historic, high-stakes labor struggle against the multinational corporation Daimler Truck North America (DTNA). The labor contract between DTNA and seven thousand United Auto Workers (UAW) members who build the company’s heavy trucks and buses at plants in North Carolina, Georgia, and Tennessee is set to expire at midnight on April 26.

While Daimler Truck posts multibillion-dollar profits, DTNA workers say they are beaten down by stagnant wages, the rising cost of living due to inflation, and an increasingly demoralizing work environment. UAW members are fighting for wage increases, improved health insurance coverage, and an end to divisive tiered employment structures, among other demands.

If their demands are not met, the autoworkers say they are ready to strike.

“I got my walking shoes, and I’m ready to walk that line because we deserve so much more than what we’ve been given,” said Tonya Brown, a UAW member who works in quality control at Thomas Built Buses in High Point, North Carolina. Brown serves as recording secretary for UAW Local 5287, which represents some 1,700 workers at Thomas Built.

“This is our time,” she said.

On April 2, Brown and other rank-and-file UAW members from the six union locals covered under the UAW master agreement with DTNA packed into the gymnasium at Local 3520 in Statesville, North Carolina. The workers, many of whom had already put in a full shift at their plants, rallied alongside UAW president Shawn Fain to kick off common language negotiations for the master contract with DTNA.

It was an unusually hot spring day, even for the South. Rally signs that read “United for a Strong Contract” served as both a show of support and fans to combat the stifling heat. Still, nothing seemed to dampen the enthusiasm of the raucous workers throughout the standing-room-only rally. The stomping and shaking in the union hall venue would have rivaled any church revival meeting. Everyone had the spirit — but in this case, the spirit was solidarity.

Fain’s speech — interspersed with loud chants of “U-A-W!” and “We will strike!” — spoke directly to the profiteering of corporations like Daimler off the backs of Southern workers. As he has in many speeches since he assumed office, the UAW president portrayed the autoworkers as class warriors engaged in an epic struggle against the billionaires.

“We’re treated like disposable commodities while they lounge in their mansions,” said Fain.

“The low-wage, high-profit model of exploiting Southern laborers is coming to an end, and it’s about damn time,” he said. “Make no mistake. This is a fight for our very survival. And we’re not afraid. We’re angry, we’re united, and we’re ready to stand up!”

The workers covered under the UAW’s master contract play a key role in producing Freightliner and Western Star heavy trucks and school buses. Notably, with 1,700 workers, the Thomas Built Bus plants in High Point and Archdale, North Carolina, together constitute the largest school bus manufacturing site in North America.

The stage is set for another UAW strike, following on the heels of the successful stand-up strike in 2023 that forced major concessions from the nation’s Big Three automakers. What makes the DTNA struggle particularly resonant is that it is taking place in the heart of the anti-union South — North Carolina is the country’s second-least unionized state — amid a rise in electric vehicle (EV) manufacturing in the Tar Heel state that is tantamount to an “industrial boom.” The green transition in North Carolina encompasses everything from lithium mining to battery production, with one EV auto plant predicted to employ seven thousand workers alone.

Simultaneously, the UAW is already seeing progress in its campaign to organize nonunion workers throughout the South. The union recently announced that ten thousand autoworkers signed union cards at thirteen worksites. Workers at the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga — who previously failed twice to secure an election victory — are set to vote in an election to join the UAW that will take place from April 17 to 19, just a week before the expiration of the UAW contract at DTNA. Meanwhile, last week, workers at the big Mercedes-Benz plant outside of Tuscaloosa, Alabama, petitioned for a union election at their plant. The UAW hopes the election will take place in early May.

No doubt nonunion workers and their bosses will be watching the DTNA contract struggle to see if the UAW can build on the victories of their 2023 strike while forging new inroads in the South, which has long been the Achilles heel of the American labor movement. Despite historic labor campaigns and other inspiring social justice movements that originated in the South, the region continues to be a target for wealth extraction by corporations looking to exploit its unorganized labor force, particularly its black and brown workers.

North Carolina was an early adopter of so-called “right-to-work” legislation, which banned mandatory union dues. Later, in 1959, state lawmakers made it illegal for public-sector workers to collectively bargain, while companies employed Jim Crow racism to subvert interracial labor organizing. Today, according to the US Department of Labor, North Carolina ranks almost dead last in union membership, a fact that leads many workers to mistakenly believe that unions are illegal.

Strike or no strike, a successful DTNA contract battle would be an inspiring example, showing that workers in heavy industry still have the power to force the hands of well-financed corporations — even in an anti-labor stronghold like the South.

“If You Don’t Live in the South, You Don’t Really Know.”

If workers at DTNA do end up walking out on April 26, this won’t be the first strike to take place at DTNA’s plants in North Carolina. The current labor battle with Daimler Truck is a continuation of the militant struggle by rank-and-file workers at the Mount Holly plant in North Carolina that resulted in a successful union election and led to a historic seventeen-day strike to secure a first contract.

Mount Holly workers waged an organizing drive with the UAW over the need for greater job security in the face of layoffs and cuts to their health benefits, securing their union election thirty-four years ago, in April 1990. A bitter and protracted contract battle, compounded by multiple unfair labor practices by Freightliner, left workers like Ricky McDowell no other choice but to strike in December 1991, ahead of the Christmas holiday.

“If you don’t live in the South, you don’t really know how significant that was back in 1991,” McDowell told Jacobin. McDowell is the president and shop chair of UAW Local 5285 at the Mount Holly plant.

The autoworkers faced blowback both on the shop floor from management and in their communities. McDowell recalled the disbelief of workers at the local mill plants as to why Freightliner employees would strike when they were known for making some of the highest wages in the area. McDowell’s own mother, a supervisor at a local mill plant, warned her son about showing up at her work wearing a union T-shirt.

“She said, ‘Baby, don’t come up here with that union shirt on. You’ll get me fired,’” said McDowell. “That’s how serious it was.”

During the strike, another worker named Bobby Fuller referenced the animosity that out-of-state company officials had for the Southern autoworkers, saying, “Nobody wanted this strike, but it was the only thing to prove to the company that we weren’t a bunch of rednecks that they can push around.”

When a Mount Holly plant manager mocked the picketers, telling them it would be a “long, cold Christmas,” McDowell bought a Christmas tree and put it on the picket line as a symbol of solidarity.

“To see the unity of the brothers and sisters come out to stand for something that you believe in and stand and fight for your rights back” was inspiring, recalled McDowell. “Everybody else counted us out, saying we was crazy [to think that] these country guys are going to get this union in this corporation.”

“But we showed them,” he said. “There was no feeling like I had when I walked back in that plant with my head held high.”

After seventeen days, the Mount Holly strike ended with the ratification of a contract. According to The UAW’s Southern Gamble by Stephen J. Silvia, the autoworkers won retroactive wage increases, 401k retirement benefits, and a joint labor-management committee for health and safety. The positive effects of their collective struggle continued to ripple through the community for years after the strike, McDowell points out, as the owners of the surrounding mill plants were forced to raise wages to avoid losing workers to the Freightliner plant.

During his speech at the mass rally in Statesville on April 2, Fain briefly recounted the history of the 1991 strike at Freightliner. He quoted directly from Bobby Fuller’s statement in the newspaper that workers had to show the company that they were just a “bunch of rednecks” that could be abused and exploited by management.

“Daimler and these greedy son of a bitches at these corporations see you and me as rednecks,” Fain said.

“Yeah, pissed-off rednecks!” cried out one worker.

“They think we are weak,” continued Fain. “They think we are afraid. We are here to tell them they are dead wrong, and we are coming for our share!”

At the UAW rally, the divisions of race seemed to disappear — at least for a moment — with black, brown, and white workers united in a common cause.

Which Side Are You On?

Not coincidentally, the surge in labor uprisings around the country, coupled with the UAW’s ambitious campaign to organize nonunion workers in Southern states, has prompted a conservative backlash from elected officials in the region.

An anti-union bill passed by the Georgia General Assembly and currently awaiting Governor Brian Kemp’s signature denies state incentives for businesses that forgo secret ballot elections in favor of voluntarily recognizing labor unions. Similar legislation is circulating through the legislature in Alabama, where Republican governor Kay Ivey called the UAW’s effort to unionize workers at the Mercedes-Benz plant in Tuscaloosa a “looming threat” against the state’s historically anti-union, business-friendly economic model. Tennessee governor Bill Lee used similar scaremongering to dissuade Volkswagen workers in Chattanooga from joining the UAW ahead of a crucial union election starting on April 17.

South Carolina governor Henry McMaster perhaps summed up the sentiments of his reactionary cohort when he vowed to fight unionization in the South “all the way to the gates of hell.”

“These corporate-backed politicians are all cut from the same cloth,” Fain said. “They’re willing to trample on the rights of workers, the very citizens who elect them, to pad the pockets of their wealthy donors. But guess what? That’s right. Tick, tock. Their days are numbered. The tide is turning, and Southern workers are taking back control of our destinies.”

Fain’s commitment to eliminating the tiered employment system, which corporations effectively used as a wedge to divide workers, elicited cheers from Percy Payne Jr and other workers from the Thomas Built Buses plant in High Point. The twenty-four-year veteran pointed out that workers with the same position in the company’s truck plants make $4 more per hour than he does. The disparity in pay for equal work is an insult, said Payne, and a point of contention that motivated him to take action.

“It’s made me more ready to fight for people who have been [at Thomas Built Buses] down through the years, longer than I have, and have been shorted out of decent pay and pensions,” Payne said. “It’s also got me fighting for people like my son right here, who’s only been there two years, so he can come into something decent.”

Payne motioned toward his son, Dangelo, who, with only two years logged at the plant, has already accumulated numerous burn scars on his forearms caused by hot metal slag from welding. Meanwhile, some older workers with seniority try to bid for less physically demanding jobs at a part of the plant affectionately dubbed the “retirement home.” This macabre moniker speaks not only to the bone-grinding work inherent in heavy industry but also to the reasons the UAW workers are ready to take radical action to demand more from Daimler.

On March 8, 96 percent of UAW workers across DTNA voted to give their leadership the ability to call a strike when the contract expires, if necessary.

Daimler Truck posted record-level revenues of nearly $6 billion in 2023, an increase of 10 percent compared to the previous year. The Daimler CEO also recently announced a share buyback program that would put more money in shareholders’ pockets.

Securing cost-of-living adjustments (COLA) due to rising prices resulting from inflation was at the top of Adam Foley’s list of demands. Foley works at the Cleveland, North Carolina, plant performing quality inspections of the trucks before they are ready to sell. Despite their combined income, he and his wife continuously wind up short each month.

“I’m personally making some of the most money I’ve made in my adult life, and I still struggle and live paycheck to paycheck,” said Foley.

Like many Southerners, Foley grew up inundated with misinformation about unions. Nevertheless, he took a chance and joined the UAW. To his surprise, he soon learned that unions’ power extended beyond wages and job security and also offered “brotherhood.”

“It’s community service, it’s outreach,” Foley said. “They affect more than just your work life. It’s your personal life, too.”

The kind of class-conscious solidarity that changed Foley also has the potential to transform the rest of the South, as Michael Goldfield points out in The Southern Key.

At a time when the South was reeling from Jim Crow, a myriad of workers were organizing in Alabama to push for transformative social change. What made Alabama “exceptional,” Goldfield argues, was that it was the most unionized state in the region.

Leading the charge in Alabama was the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) centered in Birmingham. The militant, majority-black miners’ union leveraged its collective power in the 1940s to elevate labor-friendly, nonsegregationist candidates like Governor James Folsom, implement groundbreaking occupational safety measures to combat black lung disease, and abolish convict labor, resulting in Alabama being hailed as “the most liberal state in the South.”

These changes did not come out of the ether but rather emerged from the black coal dust sent up by the UMWA. The failure to organize the South during the subsequent years continues to shape the region today.

When and how Southern workers organize will determine the fate of the rest of the country, and this is the central issue that the UAW and other unions appear to be grappling with right now.

“We’re In The Trenches — All Of Us.”

To further the goal of organizing the South, a coalition was developed to support the DTNA workers during their contract fight and to use the struggle as an opportunity to engage workers at unorganized DTNA facilities, as well as truck drivers.

The worker-led coalition encompasses members of the Southern Workers Assembly, including rank-and-file DTNA workers, and other organizations such as Truckers Movement for Justice and its sister organization in Mexico, Tamexun. Over the last several months, coalition members flyered union and nonunion DTNA plants and attended the rally on April 2, and are gearing up to participate in practice pickets, should negotiations fail by the April 26 contract deadline.

“I’ve heard that should the DTNA workers go out on strike, it’ll be one of the largest open-ended strikes in [North Carolina] in the last few decades, which I think in and of itself makes it a significant fight,” said Ben Carroll, an organizer with the Southern Workers Assembly.

“It’s incumbent upon the rest of the workers’ movement to first and foremost show solidarity with these workers, but also really use it to broaden it out and engage other workers and start to cultivate more workers stepping forward to start to organize,” he said.

Another example of how the DTNA labor contract battle extends beyond the UAW was the attendance at the rally by two National Nurses United union members from Mission Hospital in Asheville, North Carolina. The Mission nurses are currently ramping up for their own contract battle starting on April 18.

UAW workers drew inspiration from the 2020 Mission campaign, which Jacobin’s Alex N. Press described as “the largest union victory at a hospital in the South since 1975.”

Now the nurses were fired up by the display of solidarity among the autoworkers.

Nurse Aimee Bovara accepted a position at Mission expressly because she wanted to join the union. Sitting shoulder to shoulder with the UAW members at the rally underscored for Bovara the similarities between the poor working conditions of autoworkers on the assembly line and those of nurses at the bedside trying to provide quality care at for-profit hospitals.

“We’re in the trenches — all of us,” Bovara said. “We’re dirty when we come home. You know, we’re working fifteen hours. We’re sweaty. We don’t get to see our families.”

Solidarity like this will be key to securing a strong labor contract at DTNA. More than three decades since the Mount Holly autoworkers faced down Freightliner and went on strike, McDowell is ready to withhold his labor from Daimler and walk the picket line again, if necessary.

“That’s the tool that we have — our labor,” McDowell said.

“The only way we think we can get the company’s attention is to go on strike,” he said, “to stop the company from making money so they know we are serious about this. We are serious about making a decent living for our family, we are serious about making sure we get our fair share of the profit.”