UAW-GM striker: 'None of us know why we're here'

When the United Auto Workers launched a national strike last year against General Motors Corp., the reasons were obvious. The automaker was demanding unprecedented cuts and historic changes in how employees are cared for after retirement. The union wanted job guarantees and security for the next generation of auto workers.

But GM is under fire again from the UAW, with one strike under way at a critical factory and several more threatened around the country. This time, the motive is far from certain.

"None of us know why we're here," said striking GM worker Michael Schrubbe, as he walked a picket line in Delta Township, where workers have been off the job since April 17 at the factory that builds GM's popular crossovers.

The automaker avoided two walkouts on Friday, at a Grand Rapids stamping plant and a Kansas City, Kan., factory that builds the hot-selling Chevrolet Malibu. A stamping plant in Mansfield, Ohio, is threatening to strike today, and negotiations have continued through a strike deadline that passed April 18 at a Warren transmission factory. But two lines at the Warren plant that build 6-speed transmissions will go down today because of the strike in Delta Township.

GM believes the UAW threats, all against factories that either make critical models for the automaker or supply the parts to build them, are a tactic being used to draw the company into the strike against American Axle & Manufacturing Holdings Inc., according to several sources familiar with negotiations. Labor law prohibits the union from striking because of a dispute elsewhere; many think the union is using local negotiations to apply indirect pressure.

"There's a feeling among workers that their jobs are being jeopardized by things beyond their control," Gary Chaison, a labor specialist at Clark University in Worcester, Mass. "Their expectations were when everything was tied up nationally everything would fall into place. Now it appears to be unraveling so fast."

The American Axle strike, in its ninth week, has created a parts shortage that has forced GM to idle or cut production at more than two dozen North American factories. But GM's bottom line has been relatively unscathed since the affected factories produce slow-selling large trucks and SUV that were backing up on dealer lots.

At one point, it seemed the strike threatened production of GM's hot-selling Malibu. Then Bo Andersson, GM's purchasing chief, told reporters that the Malibu was safe no matter what happened with American Axle. Within days, the UAW local representing the Malibu plant in Kansas City threatened a walkout.

Many industry watchers -- and company insiders -- think the move was just one more signal that the union is pushing the automaker to ante up cash so American Axle will offer its workers a richer deal.

That's not the story the UAW is telling its members. The union's top leaders at the national level have been mum on the issue of local strikes. But local leaders, those in charge of carrying out a strike order and managing day-to-day life on the factory floors, have outlined issues they say are behind the local disputes.

Word is coming though one-on-one chats at local union halls, in online newsletters and through interviews with the media.

The issues, the local union leaders say, range from disputes over work rules to unresolved grievances that have piled up over the years. Leaders at UAW Local 730 posted an online message that said talks are hung up on "manpower issues" and 183 grievances involving subcontracting.

Another online notice by UAW Local 602 in Delta Township lists nine issues behind the strike, including work rules, grievances and rules governing non-union workers on the plant floor.

"We build the best products in the world right here for GM," UAW Local 602 President Doug Radamacher said last week from the picket line in Delta Township. The strike, he said, is strictly over local contract issues.

"This work force deserves respect."


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