CLEVELAND, N.C. (AP) — About 1,100 workers laid off from a factory that builds long-distance Freightliner trucks will be called back to work to meet increasing demand as economies in the U.S. and elsewhere improve, Daimler Trucks North America said Thursday.
"America moves on trucks. When the demand for trucks is increasing, it means that America is buying more products. It means that America is building more homes. It means that America is constructing more roads," Daimler Trucks chief operating officer Roger Nielsen said.
While growing demand in the U.S. and export markets in Australia, New Zealand and South Africa are turning around, Nielsen said the decision to resume second-shift production is also due to Freightliner winning contracts over competitors.
"While construction is recovering slowly in the U.S. — it is recovering — the construction boom south of the equator is going to really grow," Nielsen said.
The recalled workers will increase employment at the largest Freightliner manufacturing plant in the U.S. from about 1,600 to over 2,700, according to Portland, Ore.-based Daimler Trucks. The unit is a division of Stuttgart, Germany-based Daimler AG. Expanded truck production at the Cleveland factory will be accompanied by an additional 100 jobs to a nearby parts plant in Gastonia, Nielsen said.
Daimler also owns a factory in Mount Holly that builds smaller Freightliner delivery trucks and a High Point factory that makes Thomas Built school buses.
The Freightliner plant in the Rowan County town of Cleveland employed about 3,500 workers before the recession led to layoffs that whittled employment to about 650. Financial incentives offered by Rowan County and the town of Cleveland in 2009 kept the remaining jobs as Freightliner started production of military vehicles.
Since then, the plant has seen a steady recovery, said Corey Hill, president of UAW local 3520. Expanded truck production at the Cleveland factory will be accompanied by an additional 100 jobs to a nearby parts plant in Gastonia, Nielsen said.
A majority of the positions will be filled with Freightliner workers who were laid off in 2009 and the added production will nearly double the factory's production by October 2012, the company said. The plant now builds about 90 trucks a day, Hill said.
The production increase is expected to cut the wait for a Freightliner Cascadia model truck from six months to about two months, Nielsen said. A third shift could be added later if demand continues to grow, he said.
If that happens, the jobs would have to be filled with newly hired workers since the just announced production increase will deplete the list of laid off plant workers retaining the right to take back their old places based on seniority, Hill said. The union's contract includes rights for laid-off workers to reclaim their jobs when conditions improve. Some laid-off workers will have moved on to other jobs and won't return to Freightliner, so some newly hired workers may need to be trained, Nielsen said.
The announcement carries economic and political implications beyond one company's fortunes.
Daimler announced its decision a day after the Federal Reserve said the final weeks of 2011 were among the year's strongest as consumers spent more and factories built more. The only one of the Fed's 12 districts that didn't experience growth was the one that includes North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, and Maryland.
The economy and persistent unemployment promises to be the key issue in this year's elections as President Barack Obama targets North Carolina as a Southern lynchpin and Gov. Beverly Perdue tries to join him in highlighting better days ahead.
As hundreds of plant workers watched the announcement, UAW Southeast regional director Gary Casteel praised the Obama administration's policies for helping shore up the country's manufacturing base with "the type of jobs that pay our taxes and provide a strong backbone for the American economy."
"I look at trucking as the leading economic indicator for all industry. If you see one of these trucks rolling down the road, something good is on the back of it," Casteel said.
U.S. Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-N.C., who frequently criticizes the Obama administration, said she's no different from everyone else in hoping the economy is rebounding.
"Everybody should celebrate," she said.