"We're taking a stand" at American Axle

Lee Sustar looks at the background to a strike at a GM parts supplier.

AS A strike by workers at five American Axle Manufacturing (AAM) plants in Michigan and New York reached its second week, a cutoff of parts forced the partial or complete shutdown of 20 General Motors plants, accounting for half the company's North American production.

The strike by 3,600 members of the United Auto Workers (UAW) began February 26 after management refused to budge from its demands to slash wages nearly in half--from about $26 or $27 an hour to about $14.

The proposed wage cuts match the concessions that the UAW gave bankrupt parts maker Delphi, as well as the pay for new hires for the Big Three Detroit auto manufacturers who work in jobs off the assembly line.

The Delphi and Big Three contracts contained buyouts and early retirement options for high-paid workers. And current workers in the auto assembly plants are able to maintain their higher wages.

But these concessions aren't good enough for AAM. Although the company is profitable, it is demanding that all workers take the pay cuts immediately.

Faced with this hard-line stance, the UAW International had little choice but to call a strike. But the Detroit Free Press reported that the union had already agreed to take steep cuts--a $5 cut in pay for skilled trades workers to $27 an hour, and a range of $14.65 to $21 per hour for production workers.

"The company's last offer also eliminates [cost-of-living adjustments], and they want to get rid of a defined pension plan for seniority workers," wrote the editorial board of the AAM rank-and-file newsletter, Shifting Gears. "It's a good thing there is no agreement because there is no way American Axle workers should go along with this!"

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THIS IS only the latest attack on the UAW since AAM was spun off from GM in 1994. Then, the company had 5,600 UAW workers, compared to the 3,600 who work at the five plants covered by the pattern agreement--forging and production plants in Hamtramck, Mich., a forging plant in Tonawanda, N.Y., a machining plant in Cheektowaga, N.Y., and a production plant in Three Rivers, Mich.

Today, AAM plans to eliminate 1,000 more jobs at these plants, even as the company has expanded to 29 plants worldwide. Much of AAM's work in North America is going to nonunion facilities. For example, AAM purchased an empty plant in Oxford, Miss., moved machinery there from unionized plants, and hired workers at $10 an hour.

Workers in the Three Rivers plant, members of UAW Local 2093, are all too familiar with these tactics. They voted in 2000 to accept a two-tier wage and benefit agreement.

In 2003, they voted to reject a third, lower tier--but were pressured by the UAW International into voting to accept the cuts soon afterward. Under the deal, the top-scale workers, then making $26 per hour, took a 64 cents per hour wage cut. The second tier had a start pay of $13.50 to $17 per hour, with the lower tier at $13.50 per hour.

The following year, the city of Three Rivers granted the company a $13.7 million tax abatement with the promise that AAM would add jobs. "They got a hold of the city and got tax breaks, and all of a sudden, no new jobs," Three Rivers AAM worker and Local 2093 member Tony Currier said on the picket line March 9.

"We're not asking for the world," Currier said. "We just want to be able to get by. I want to be able to see my kids grow up. I don't want to have to put my kid to work in order to pay the electric bill or something.

"They want to take that away from us. They want to turn us into the working poor. They want to make it so people can't retire--so you have to work until you die."

Mike Crofoot, a skilled trades worker at the plant, agreed. "The unions have raised the standard of American living in a lot of different ways in the last 50 years, with health and safety acts, holidays, paid overtime, [protection against] management abuse and work standards," he said. "We helped a lot of industries that are not unionized bring these standards up in the last 50 years.

"Now they want us to go away and die, so that management and big business can do what they want, so that CEOs can make these high profits. You have to make a stand somewhere."

Glenn Allen and Andrew Freund contributed to this article.