Monday, March 31, 2008

'It could get ugly' as strikers rally while American Axle seeks replacements

cross posted at Michigan Messenger
American Axle strikers rallied at company headquarters in Detroit Monday in response to help-wanted ads the company ran over the weekend, according to an expert close to the situation. Striking workers and labor experts see the ads as a sign that the company does not intend to negotiate and may bring in strike breakers.

"I don't think the workers on strike will stand by and let American Axle bring in striker replacements. It could get ugly," said Maurice "Skip" Turner, a labor education specialist at the University of Michigan Labor Studies Center. "I think the ads are designed to place fear in the hearts and minds of the workers."

The strike, heading into its fifth week, is the longest automotive strike in a decade. With wide-ranging impact -- cutting or stopping production at 30 GM plants -- experts think it may not go on much longer. "I think the make or break period is fast approaching and that is evidenced by the ads taken out by the five plants that American Axle operates," Turner said.

While American Axle is talking tough, threatening to move production overseas and placing help-wanted ads, experts contend that the union still has bargaining strength.

"The workers have some leverage, in that they are the main supplier for GM and a big supplier for Chrysler, as well," said Roland Zullo, research scientist in labor relations at the University of Michigan Labor Studies Center. "You need to have axles to make vehicles and get them off the line and sold -- it gives the union considerable leverage. There aren't a lot of alternative suppliers that GM can turn to quickly."

And the threat to move production is seen as mostly bluster. "It takes quite a bit to move five plants and relocate and retrain and you incur shipping costs because your client is still here. It is a threat, but I don't see it being much more than that," Turner said.

But economic reality may weaken the UAW's position. According to Zullo, "From GM's perspective this is not the worst time in the world to have shut-down plants because you have a lot of vehicles out there that aren't being sold. This is an inexpensive way to thin out inventory."

Turner has concerns for workers and communities if the company succeeds in cutting worker pay in half. "How many workers are going to be able to afford the mortgages on their houses?" he said. "That's going to add to the mortgage crisis. How many will be able to afford to pay for the vehicles they make? That's going to add to the economic crisis."

With Michigan's high unemployment, Turner allows there are "probably hundreds of people" willing to take the positions advertised by American Axle this weekend. Still, a strike-breaker action would be ultimately detrimental to both sides, making contract resolution even harder.