Local GM workers laid off

Strike at axle supplier halts production at White Marsh plant

April 22, 2008|By Laura McCandlish | Laura McCandlish,Sun Reporter

The lingering strike at General Motors Corp.'s chief axle supplier has halted production at GM Powertrain's Baltimore Transmission Plant.

About 280 hourly workers have been temporarily laid off at the White Marsh plant, where the manufacturing of transmissions has ceased, GM spokesman John Raut said yesterday.

The two-month strike at Detroit-based American Axle & Manufacturing Holdings Inc. has cut production at about 30 GM facilities, or close to half its plants, according to Dan Flores, also a GM spokesman. It has also affected a plant in Indiana owned by AM General that makes Hummers for GM.

As talks continued yesterday, GM announced that it would cut one of three shifts at an Oshawa, Ontario, factory that makes the Chevrolet Impala and Buick Lacrosse sedans. It also cut production of four-speed car and truck transmissions at a factory in Ypsilanti Township, about 30 miles west of Detroit.

The factories employ more than 43,000 workers, though not all of them have been laid off. Dozens of other parts suppliers also have been affected.

Operations ceased at the White Marsh plant April 7, when workers stopped manufacturing a new hybrid transmission for the Chevrolet Tahoe, Raut said. Production of the Allison 1000 six-speed automatic transmission for the Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra had stopped March 10.

The recent shutdown of GM's Arlington, Texas, plant, which built hybrid trucks with White Marsh-made transmissions, prompted the Baltimore plant to close.

"They went down, which forced [the local plant] to go down," Raut said. "There is currently no production and nothing being shipped from the facility."

Workers furloughed from the White Marsh plant receive state unemployment benefits as well as supplemental pay from GM, Raut said.

That should equal 80 to 85 percent of their take-home pay, he said, with health benefits remaining in effect.

If state unemployment benefits expire before the strike is resolved, GM will start paying the full compensation amount to its workers, Flores added.

The continuing American Axle strike means GM doesn't have parts for certain pickup trucks and SUVs - including the three models worked on in White Marsh. About 3,600 members of the United Auto Workers first walked off the job Feb. 26 at five American Axle plants in Michigan and New York after contract talks broke down. The company, which has said its total U.S. hourly labor cost including benefits is $73.48 per worker, initially wanted to cut its hourly wage roughly in half, to $14.

American Axle spokeswoman Renee Rogers said yesterday that the company is bargaining in good faith. Although talk of a tentative agreement is premature, she said, there has been movement.

"On Friday and Saturday, we made some progress on some things," she said, declining to reveal specifics.

The strike comes as GM faces its own labor disputes over local contract issues, prompting workers to walk out Thursday at a Delta Township, Mich., assembly plant that makes the popular Buick Enclave, Saturn Outlook and GMC Acadia. That same day, workers at a plant in Fairfax, Kan., which produces another hot seller, the Chevrolet Malibu, issued a five-day strike warning.

Initially, the American Axle strike might have benefited GM, according to Jamie Kitman, the New York bureau chief for Automobile Magazine and U.S. editor of Top Gear, a British auto magazine. It enabled the country's biggest car maker to sell off extra inventory that has piled up since soaring fuel prices and an economic slowdown have hurt sales, particularly of large trucks.

But supplies of the Chevrolet Malibu and other top-selling GM cars are starting to wear thin, Kitman added.

"Now there's going to be a lot of de facto pressure on GM to step into the negotiations," Kitman said of the UAW-American Axle dispute.

The strike hasn't idled production at the Chrysler plant in Newark, Del., where some Marylanders work, company spokesman Ed Saenz said. American Axle makes parts for the Dodge Durango and the Chrysler Aspen, but GM, which spun off the company in 1994, constitutes 80 percent of its business.

Members of UAW Local 239, which represents workers at the White Marsh plant, wondered if the American Axle strike would prompt GM to look for another parts supplier. Representatives of the Baltimore union also said the poor economy and diesel prices were hurting GM's truck business more than the strike has.

"We certainly hope they can reach a resolution soon so we can get our facilities up and running," said Flores, GM's chief spokesman.

laura.mccandlish@baltsun.com

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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