Economy

American Axle Workers Take a Hard Hit as UAW Officials Give up Strike

The longest major walkout since the GM strike of 1970 was considered by many UAW activists to be a watershed moment in the industry.
United Auto Workers officials ended the 12-week American Axle strike with a concessions-heavy tentative agreement May 16. If approved, the contract will close two of the five struck plants by November and impose deep givebacks only marginally better than the offer that sent workers to the picket lines (see section below).

The strike -- the longest major auto industry walkout since the GM strike of 1970 -- was considered by many UAW activists to be a watershed moment in the fight to maintain union standards in the auto parts industry. Members' reactions to the settlement varied. Some strikers were openly angered by the main Detroit informational meeting May 18. Speeches from UAW President Ron Gettelfinger and International Vice-President Jimmy Settles drew scattered boos and heckling from the audience.

Wendy Thompson, a retired president of UAW Local 235, challenged the UAW officials' strategy for the strike from the floor in a speech that drew applause. "Vote no" chants were heard both inside and outside the meeting hall.

Reactions from other local meetings were more mixed. Resignation, frustration, and a "take-the-money-and-run" attitude toward proposed buyouts and buydowns (payouts that transition workers to the new lower wage scale) were cited in eyewitness and press reports from workers at the two plants on the chopping block, Detroit Forge and Tonawanda Forge. Workers voted Monday at four struck plants in western New York and Michigan, which total 1,650 workers. The contract is expected to pass in these locales by varying margins.

More than 2,000 members of UAW Local 235 at the flagship Detroit Axle plant, who passed a resolution early in the strike demanding five days to consider any settlement, will vote Thursday. Local 235 members held a one-day strike in 2004 after rejecting a previous concessionary agreement. Vote totals are expected to be released May 23.

Shopfloor Newsletter Condemns Axle Settlement "Lowlights"

Shifting Gears, an American Axle rank-and-file newsletter, pointed out the following "contract lowlights" in a special leaflet urging strikers to reject the proposed contract:
  • different wage scale within Detroit Axle, with production workers ranging from $14.35 to $18.50 per hour
  • different wage scales among Detroit Axle ($14.35-$18.50), Cheektowaga ($14.35-$16.50) and Three Rivers ($10-$18) production workers, so that for future work the plants can be pitted against each other
  • no increase in wages over the life of the contract
  • instead of 5 percent premium, second shift would get 55 cents per hour; instead of 10 percent premium, third shift would get 80 cents per hour
  • pensions frozen as of January 2009; receive 3 percent of wage in a 401(k) plus matching additional contribution (But who will have extra money to put anything into it?)
  • combining skilled trades into only four classifications and reducing their hourly wage to $25-$26 (This is a proposed cut near and dear to CEO Dick Dauch, who would be the first executive to reduce skilled trades wages -- the Big Three didn't, and neither did Delphi.)
  • added health care costs: weekly "contributions" will start at $10 (individual)-$25 (family) and increase 3 percent per year, cost of living adjustment (COLA) sees 12 cents diversion each quarter for health care as well as higher up-front deductibles
  • overtime only kicks in after a 40-hour week, not after an 8-hour day
  • The unemployment support SUB fund of $18 million (donated by GM) is limited and underfunded
  • new hires would start at $11.50 per hour with no provision for COLA or even 5 percent in a 401(k); only to get dental after three years. Most other benefits would not match current workers: less shift premium, higher co-pays, etc.
  • increasing the number of workers each committeeperson represents
  • eliminating the right to strike during the term of the contract for issues such as health and safety, speed-up, sub-contracting, and bargaining in bad faith
  • decreasing the time frame the union has to counter the company's plan to outsource from 150 days to 30 days
  • nickel and dimes a whole range of benefits including co-pays for generic drugs, capping health care for future retirees, tuition assistance
  • closing down Detroit Forge and Tonawanda Forge (while opening up a $10 an hour non-union plant in Oxford, Michigan)
  • removing Three Rivers from the no-plant-closing provision
  • shoving us out of the GM Umpire System, to be replaced by an inferior system of arbitration
  • eliminating some holiday and vacation time
  • taking some of our products out from under the protection of the successor clause (which ensure that the contract's negotiated terms continue in the event of a sale)
  • cutting relief time from 23 minutes to 15 minutes
Chris Kutalik is the editor of Labor Notes..