For more than two months, 3,600 United Auto Workers (UAW) members have walked picket lines in Detroit, Three Rivers, Mich., and upstate New York. The strike at American Axle & Manufacturing (AAM), a major supplier of truck and sport-utility axles for General Motors (GM), is shaping up as a line-in-the-sand campaign for the embattled union.
The strike began Feb. 26, when AAM demanded steep wage concessions, from $27 per hour to $14 per hour. In order to stay in business, AAM says, it must secure “competitive” labor costs. “AAM is simply asking for the same changes the UAW has already agreed to with our U.S. competitors,” reads the company website, referring to recent UAW deals with companies like Delphi – GM’s bankrupt auto-parts division – which slashed wages and benefits two years ago. AAM has said it may move production to its Guanajuato, Mexico, plant if its demands are not met.
However, Rob Segura, a machinist at AAM’s Detroit plant, points out that the company is in much better financial shape than the rest of the auto industry. The company turned a $37 million profit last year, while its main competitor, the Dana Corporation, only recently emerged from bankruptcy protection.
Segura says that given the size of the proposed wage cuts, “You’re asking the average worker to vote on losing your home.” Workers also point to Axle Chief Executive Officer Dick Dauch’s salary, which totaled $10.2 million in 2007.
AAM spokeswoman Renee Rogers says that Axle had a 1 percent profit margin in 2007. She adds that Dauch has no reason to apologize for his salary: “He’s the founder of the company, he invested his own money, and now he’s able to reap the rewards of that.”
Dauch has headed AAM since 1994, when GM sold its former axle division. In 2005, AAM opened its world headquarters next to its main plant after receiving a special 12-year tax abatement from Detroit, which exempts AAM from most state and local taxes on the property, and $4.4 million in additional state tax credits. (The exemptions resulted from AAM’s threats to build its headquarters in Buffalo.)
Dianne Feeley, a retired AAM employee and co-editor of a rank-and-file American Axle newsletter, Shifting Gears, says the C.E.O. is a shrewd negotiator. “Dauch is a great poker player,” she says.
AAM headquarters – a structure of white stone and mirrored glass, known to workers as “the Glass House” – rises high above Detroit’s Chrysler Freeway. There, late-model American sedans and SUVs ferry salaried employees through a picket line of a dozen workers, such as repairman Mike Pockey.
“They’re in there, breathing fresh air like a freaking casino,” Pockey says, gesturing to the glass building, “while we’re breathing this filthy air” inside the factory.
The union says five workers have died in industrial accidents at the plant since 1994. Rogers would not address that charge, but says, “safety is a top priority for American Axle.”
Assembly-line work, strikers say, is a wearisome job. “You wear your body down for eight hours straight, every day,” says one striker, who, like many other picketers, wished to remain anonymous. “Sure it’s easy for five minutes, but do it eight hours.”
Another worker, Rob, who declined to give his last name, says of the proposed $14 hourly wage, “I can honestly tell you that no one would go back for that. The plant life is such that you don’t know what it’s like unless you work there.”
Workers say they have received little information from the UAW International, which oversees negotiations and strike pay. “If you watch the news,” Rob says, “you know about as much as we do.” (The International did not respond to In These Times’ repeated requests for comment.)
UAW leadership abruptly postponed an April 16 rally in Detroit because of “some progress” in negotiations, according to a terse fax distributed to Detroit’s two striking locals. Yet three days later, union President Ron Gettelfinger announced that Axle was not negotiating.
Bill Alford Jr., president of UAW Local 235, characterizes the strike as a major battle. “We’re at war defending the middle class and its wage,” he says. “If we lose here, then every other middle-class worker will be next.”