4/22/08

UAW strikes reflect festering local grievances

As a strike deadline looms at a key General Motors Corp. assembly plant today in Kansas, the president of the UAW local there said progress is slow, but the union might continue to work past today's deadline as long as talks are advancing.

The plant, in Kansas City, Kan., makes the Chevrolet Malibu, one of GM's hottest-selling cars. On Thursday, GM disclosed that it had received a 5-day strike notice from UAW Local 31.

"We're just hammering it out with them," Local 31 President Jeff Manning said Monday. "During the next couple of days, we hope to get it wrapped up."

GM's plant in Kansas is one of many where production is either shut down or threatened because of UAW strikes. The eight-week old UAW strike against GM supplier American Axle & Manufacturing Inc. has now either shut down or limited production at 30 GM factories, as well as at an Indiana plant that makes the Hummer H2.

Workers have gone on strike at a GM plant in Delta Township near Lansing, and workers at two other plants in Michigan are on the verge of striking over local contract issues.

Talks between GM and each of the four UAW locals continued through the weekend. Negotiators for American Axle and their UAW counterparts took a break and resumed Monday.

Some have suggested that there is a connection between the UAW's moves at the GM plants and the slow-moving progress with American Axle, but Manning rejected that.

"We've been at it since June of 2007, and at some point, you've got to move forward," Manning said.

Work rules and other issues

GM reached a national agreement with the UAW last year that addresses wages and benefits. But the automaker must also negotiate agreements with local UAW chapters at about 77 plants, primarily covering work rules, to replace those that expired in September. So far, it has reached agreements at 10 locations.

"It all has to do with seniority and job security," Manning said. "Those are the two main things."

Negotiations with locals can sometimes be tense, even when relations between UAW's top leadership and an automaker are constructive, said Nelson Lichtenstein, a professor of labor studies at the University of California at Berkeley.

"The thing about local strikes on working conditions and such issues is that they have a dynamic which is independent of the larger dour circumstances of the domestic auto industry," he said in an e-mail to the Free Press. "Workers want to resolve local grievances, which fester forever."

In Wyoming, Mich., near Grand Rapids, workers could go on strike as early as Friday.

"The meetings are going on and are looking good, from what I have heard," UAW Local 730 Webmaster Karl Hamilton said in an e-mail to the Free Press.

"In my opinion, I still feel that there will not be a strike, even if the contract is not completely settled by Friday."

GM cuts production

Meanwhile, the eight-week strike at American Axle has forced GM to cut production at two more plants. On Monday, GM cut one of three shifts at an Oshawa, Ontario, factory that makes the Chevrolet Impala and Buick Lacrosse sedans. It also cut production of four-speed transmissions at a factory in Washtenaw County's Ypsilanti Township. The Oshawa plant normally employs nearly 4,000 hourly workers; the Willow Run plant in Ypsilanti Township has nearly 1,500.

GM spokesman Dan Flores said one shift returned to work at GM's Oshawa truck plant. That plant, which makes the GMC Sierra and Chevrolet Silverado, normally has about 3,300 hourly employees split between two shifts.

Pressure likely to rise

Renee Rogers, spokeswoman for American Axle, said the two sides have been making some progress but declined to elaborate.

Scrutiny of the American Axle strike is likely to increase as the week goes on. The company is planning to hold its annual meeting Thursday, and freep.com postings urge a larger-than-usual turnout on the picket line that day.

American Axle also is scheduled to release its first-quarter earnings Friday, which could reveal how deeply the strike has hurt its finances.

Kirk Ludtke, senior vice president of CRT Capital Group LLC, said financial analysts will likely have a hard time evaluating what those financial results mean for American Axle's future unless the company reveals details about the status of negotiations, which he sees as unlikely.

Analysts will want to look at how much liquidity or available cash, American Axle has, but Ludtke said the company should still be in good shape.

American Axle shares dropped 41 cents, or 1.8%, Monday to close at $22.34.

Despite the production cuts for GM, its shares rose $1.14, or 5.7%, Monday to close at $21.27.

(freep.com)

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