UAW strike v. American Axle, week 11

Local UAW reps abandon talks

United Auto Workers negotiators from out-of-town union locals were not at the bargaining table Wednesday with top American Axle officials, but talks continued to try to end the 72-day strike against the Detroit-based auto supplier. Company and union officials said talks are progressing even without the plant-level bargainers.

UAW representatives from Three Rivers and New York returned home after a month of near continuous negotiations in Detroit with American Axle & Manufacturing Holdings Inc.

"They've returned to talk to their members," said Bill Alford, vice president of UAW Local 235, which represents Detroit workers.

Company spokeswoman Renee Rogers said negotiations "are moving forward."

"They are talking about economic issues that are mostly handled by the International folks that are at the table," she said.

Negotiators for UAW Local 235 were also absent Wednesday, Alford said. Strikers at Local 235 haven't been briefed on the talks since a meeting April 20.

Alford said Local 235's leadership is focused on "taking care of the workers," including informing them of food banks and social service agencies.

Some 3,650 workers walked out on Feb. 26, after rejecting the company's proposal for steep wage and benefits cuts.

Wendy Thompson, the retired former president of Local 235 and a vocal critic of accepting steep wage reductions, said the departure of local negotiators could indicate that talks have soured after details of a proposal emerged in recent weeks.

That deal called for workers to accept wage cuts ranging from $5 to $14 per hour, depending on position, and the closure of two forge plants, in exchange for $140,000 buyouts or a $90,000 buydown bonus to stay at a lower wage.

Thompson said those wage reductions were only acceptable to the UAW if the forge plants in Detroit and New York remained open. Those two locations employ 760 union members.

"Why would you give (American Axle CEO) Dick Dauch exactly what he wants after being out on strike for 10 weeks?" she said.

Negotiators returning home is not an indication that talks have broken down, and is common during marathon talks, said Harley Shaiken, labor professor at the University of California, Berkeley.

Local negotiators may be checking with membership to assess interest in a possible deal, or an agreement may not be close, so negotiators' day-to-day presence is not needed, he said.

"The heavy lifting is still going on," he said. "If local officials are needed, they could be back very shortly."

The strike has impacted production at about 30 General Motors Corp. plants, but a GM van plant in Wentzville, Mo., will resume production Monday after two months of being completely shut down.

A spokesman for GM, American Axle's biggest customer, said the company obtained the parts it needed for that plant, but didn't specify the source. American Axle has ramped up production at a Mexico factory during the strike.

Strikers at American Axle's Detroit plant say they've received little information about negotiations.

"Everyone is frustrated, we're tired of it and want to go back to work," said David Fudge, a striker from Hamtramck. "We hear something is close... then it never comes."


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