President Visits Freightliner Plant With Its Own Recovery Story
Trucks manufactured at Mount Holly plant. Photo: Lisa Miller President Barack Obama will visit a Freightliner plant in Mount Holly today. That plant churns out more than one hundred trucks a day and employs about 1,450 people. It will make a good backdrop for the president as he talks about turning around the economy. You could say Freightliner's plants in Gaston and Rowan counties have had their own recoveries. But workers there are kind-of used to them. They're used to the layoffs too that seem to come every few years. Three years ago, Freightliner announced it was cutting 2,100 jobs at its three plants in Gaston and Rowan Counties. It was a devastating day for workers like Neil Hipp. "Where are we going to find a job making $24 an hour?" wondered Hipp just after he got his notice. "We've worked [here] ever since we were young, so we don't have the education to do nothing else." That lay off felt different. Many workers were convinced Freightliner's parent company Daimler Trucks North America was moving all the jobs to Mexico. But that didn't happen. DTNA did shift production to its Mexico plants. The local chapter of the United Auto Workers fought to bring back some of those jobs. Under the new three year contract signed in 2010, Diamler Trucks North America agreed to produce 24 trucks a day at the Mt. Holly plant before the company's plant in Santiago, Mexico. As usual, the plants began hiring again. There was even an expansion in Mount Holly. That plant is now surrounded by a couple hundred shiny new white trucks and in the employee lot there's a bunch of cars. Two and a half years ago, it was not like this. The plant was down to a skeleton crew of about 150 workers. But now things are picking up. Kevin Watts. Photo: Lisa Miller "You know, they're selling a bunch of trucks," says Kevin Watts. He had almost given up after losing his job in 2009. "I really had a feeling it was going to come back, but the longer it took, the less I had that feeling. I started feeling like it wasn't coming back at all, but, thank God, it did," says Watts. He got called back in the summer of 2010 and in 2011 Freightliner hired more than 1,000 workers at its Mount Holly plant. This cycle isn't anything new in truck manufacturing. Shifts are added and cut depending on global demand. Bob Costello, the chief economist for the American Trucking Associations says during this most recent recession, the demand for freight dropped and trucking companies made do with older trucks. "But now they're trying to catch up because demand has improved and those trucks are starting to cost them a lot more, so they're replacing at a pretty good clip," says Costello. Mount Holly's plant now produces roughly 100 trucks a day. Some of them are hybrids and a few are natural gas powered. Lesheena Stitt. Photo: Lisa Miller Orders have been so good the plant hired some new people like Lasheena Stitt. Her father worked there when she was young. Before she took the job he had some words of caution. "Well, he said, 'You know, you know, how they lay off?" But I was like, 'I know, but it's okay," remembers Stitt. The pay is good for her and Stitt says even if there are layoffs, it's just a matter of time until Freightliner calls you back. Right now she feels like she has a secure job. That's not so much because of the economy she says. But more to do with the fact that she's cleaning offices at Freightliner and not making trucks.