3/20/08

Strike pay won't cover UAW workers' losses

Three weeks into a strike that has shut dozens of North American auto plants, idled over 40,000 workers and threatened credit ratings for the industry, striking workers at American Axle & Manufacturing Holdings Inc say they expect no quick resolution. American Axle workers walking picket lines outside the auto parts supplier's plants in Detroit and Three Rivers, Michigan, say they expect a long strike and could not live on the company's current offer of sharply reduced wages.

"It's what we have to do," said Ryan Hugan, who has worked for American Axle almost since its start in 1994. "We will do it as long as we have to. We just feel that we are being treated unfairly."

Hugan warmed his hands over a barrel fire as he and other workers represented by the United Auto Workers picketed American Axle's sprawling plant in Detroit.

Now in its fourth week, the strike dwarfs short walkouts at General Motors Corp and Chrysler last year and shows few signs of ending. UAW President Ron Gettelfinger said last week talks had been a "one-way" street of American Axle demands.

American Axle spokeswoman Renee Rogers said on Tuesday the company was "having meaningful discussions on a number of topics" and progress was being made.

Some 3,650 UAW workers went on strike at American Axle plants in Michigan and New York on Feb. 26, and few expected a repeat of the one-day walkout that led to a contract in 2004.

GM has nearly 30 facilities partly or fully shut because of the strike, affecting more than 37,000 hourly workers and 4,600 salaried employees. Some auto parts suppliers also have had to cut back because of the loss of GM production.

GM U.S. sales chief Mark LaNeve told Reuters in an interview on Wednesday the automaker had enough inventory to withstand a strike lasting at least another month.

The impact, too, has been felt by smaller firms in Three Rivers, a small city near the Indiana border where the American Axle plant is the biggest employer.

"The conversations I have had with business owners indicate that sales are down," city manager Joe Bippus said.

RESOLUTION OF STRIKE UNCLEAR

Standard & Poor's Corp placed GM, American Axle, Lear Corp and Tenneco Inc ratings on ratings watch negative on Monday because of the lengthening strike. Lear and Tenneco, which also produce parts used on large pickup trucks and SUVs, also have been hurt by GM's production shutdowns.

CSM Worldwide analyst Joe Langley said on Wednesday GM could weather a several-month walkout before an impact, given its oversupply of full-sized pickup trucks, SUVs and vans.

"With the two sides still far from resolution and no immediate need for GM to get involved, the likelihood of the strike continuing into April is growing more probable," he said.

American Axle has said wages and benefits run more than $70 per hour, about three times those of competitors, and it would have to close plants without wage cuts to as low as $14 per hour.

"Not knowing when it is going to end, it is hard to make plans," said Willie Roop, 44, who has worked 12 years at the plant in Three Rivers, where he has lived most of his life.

"I think people were prepared to begin with," said Roop. "Most of the people I talk to seem to be doing pretty good. You cut back where you can and try to help each other out."

Workers said they have been hard-pressed to get by on the $200 per week in strike pay, compared with more than $1,100 a week before the strike, but noted they would not get much more if they accepted the $14-per-hour wage demanded by American Axle.

At that wage rate, workers could not even afford to buy the GM pickup trucks and sport-utility vehicles for which they are producing the axles and gears, they said.

"If American Axle closes or if I'm making $14 an hour, I'll lose my house," Keith Bardol said. "So I'm here walking."

Bardol, who transferred to Detroit from Buffalo, New York, said he was disappointed with the proposed wage cuts and with American Axle Chief Executive Dick Dauch, a co-founder of the company.

"A lot of people really believed Dauch when he talked about how 'we're a family' and 'we're all in this together,'" Bardol said. "People had a lot of respect for him, but now I just feel like I've been duped."

American Axle has idled the Buffalo plant. It also has facilities in Cheektowaga and Tonawanda, New York, that it is seeking to close, union officials have said.

Worker Shawn Hall said he had thanked Dauch every day for the first 13 years he had worked at the Detroit axle plant, until the strike began.

"We know it's the downturn and we have to give back, but he's hit us right there," Hall said, making a swinging motion with his picket sign at knee level. "If I have to stand out here until I'm in Bermuda shorts and sandals, I'll do it."

(reuters.com)

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