American Axle strike: Unionists from all over join picket lines

By Bryan G. Pfeifer

“It’s a historical struggle here in Detroit, in a city with all these mass layoffs and people losing their homes. The workers here at American Axle are keeping some energy in our movement and revitalizing the class struggle. So we feel it’s very important to be out here to show them support,” said Dante Strobino, an organizer with United Electrical workers Local 150 and a member of the youth organization Fight Imperialism—Stand Together (FIST).

UAW strike is a magnet for workers<br>wanting to resist.
UAW strike is a magnet for workers
wanting to resist. FIST member Strobino is in middle with
fist in the air.
photo: Cheryl LaBash

As Strobino spoke to this Workers World reporter on April 12, the chants from an impromptu rally at UAW Local 235 rang out for blocks.

Led by Black women workers from SEIU United Healthcare Workers West, hundreds chanted before heading back to their vehicles: “Tell the whole damn world, this is union territory! On strike, shut it down, Detroit is a union town!”

Three buses and car caravans from a Labor Notes conference in Dearborn, Mich., had traveled to the site of the world headquarters of American Axle in Hamtramck.

Another group of 50 people from UAW Local 211 also came in solidarity.

Led by strikers, the supporting unionists fanned out in groups to various picket lines where they were greeted with hearty handshakes and cheers.

The internationalist spirit and power of workers from around the world electrified everyone.

“I’m ecstatic. It’s amazing to have members from different locals and different countries—Germany, Brazil, Colorado, Japan and Australia,” Bill Alford Jr., vice president of Local 235, told Workers World at the union hall.

“I had workers from Brazil telling me that they are going to picket American Axle there. It’s just wonderful to see folks up and down the street. They basically came in, took control of the street and let everyone know they were here. They had their own chants and their own songs to support my brothers and sisters on strike.”

Alford said workers from UAW locals at Delphi, Dana Corp., General Motors, Ford and Chrysler in the U.S. and Canada, plus other unions and community organizations, have been walking the picket lines, donating provisions and funds and participating in outreach on a daily basis.

Local 235, which represents over 1,900 Black, white, Arab and Latin@ workers, is now also operating an “adopt-a-worker” program where workers not on strike pledge a one-time or ongoing monetary contribution for a sister or brother on strike.

Fighting for all workers

Over 3,600 workers at five American Axle plants in Michigan and New York have been on strike for almost two months. Charging an unfair labor practice, the UAW says the company refused to open its books in a serious manner.

American Axle wants to cut the workers’ pay in half, eliminate pensions and gut benefits—despite the fact that the company made $37 million in profits last year. CEO Richard Dauch himself made $10.2 million last year, while the workers make on average about $45,000 to $50,000 before taxes.

The online Living Wage Calculator estimates that a family of four living in Dearborn, Mich., needs a gross income of $48,249 to cover basic expenses—and this estimate was for July 2007, before the recent steep rise in energy and food prices.

The company has run ads to recruit scabs and is reportedly training them at various sites in Michigan, New York and elsewhere. It recalled 400 laid-off workers in late March in an attempt to make them lose their unemployment benefits and to encourage them to scab, but they reported for work and then walked right out to the picket line.

A total of 30 GM factories have been fully or partly shut down, with more than 40,000 workers now on layoff. About 80 percent of American Axle’s products are sold to GM. American Axle also produces parts for Toyota, which are being made inside the plant in Detroit by management scabs.

American Axle, the UAW International and the local’s bargaining teams are in ongoing talks. The company has barely moved on its original “proposal” and has thus far rejected outright two contract proposals made by the UAW, saying the concessions offered weren’t enough and that, if the union didn’t agree to American Axle’s demands, it would move its plants. The UAW rejected a mediation request by the company on April 13.

The rank and file continue to fight, refusing to accept any concessionary contract similar to those implemented at Delphi, Dana Corp. and the Big Three. Such agreements would drive the workers into poverty with buy-outs, buy-downs and a two-tier wage structure.

Those on the picket lines are clear that they are fighting for all workers. If American Axle, an extremely profitable company, can get away with massive concessions, that would open the door for an even bigger bosses’ onslaught in the auto industry as well as in other sectors.

In the midst of the American Axle strike, UAW locals at three Michigan factories—in Flint, Lansing and Warren—issued five-day strike notices the week of April 6, telling GM the union will go out if local contracts aren’t agreed to soon.

Revitalizing international class struggle

FIST organizer Strobino added, between chanting at the union hall: “We’re under attack. We’re getting shipped over to Iraq. Our schools are underfunded. A lot of folks can’t even afford to go to college. A lot of them go straight to the work force right out of high school. It’s brought on by the bosses spending trillions of dollars on this imperialist war that could be going to fund people’s needs, give people’s homes back, give money for some good union jobs, for health care, for getting real education. So the war is very connected to the struggle here, too.”

Quynh Nguyen, a student at the University of Minnesota and a member of Socialist Alternative and Education for Social Change, said, “I think it’s important to support the workers—this strike is crucial,” as she hoisted a UAW placard while walking the picket line.

Todd Ferguson, a chief steward in Communications, Energy and Paper Workers Local 591G in Toronto, Canada, was excited to walk his first UAW picket line in Detroit. “We can’t separate the struggle. It’s the same struggle. It’s the same fight,” said Ferguson.

Benedicto Martínez, one of three national officers of the Authentic Labor Front (Frente Auténtico del Trabajo or FAT), an independent labor federation in Mexico representing labor unions, worker-owned cooperatives, and farm worker and community organizations, joined the picket line in solidarity and to learn about the conditions of workers in the U.S. FAT was a founding member of Mexico’s new, independent labor federation, the National Union of Workers or UNT. Martínez’s comments were translated by Dan LaBotz of the Teamsters.

“Today I am convinced that workers can’t carry out a struggle just in one plant or in one country. These companies have been globalizing, and they’ve been putting their plants all over the world. If there’s a strike, they say we can put this plant in another country. That’s why I believe we have to create unions based on the industries and firms,” said Martínez.

He added: “I wish them victory and hope they’re successful and that they’ll carry on and fight as hard as they can because that’s the only way to defend the benefits and wages that we have. The strike is the ultimate weapon that workers are left with and we have to use it.”

A UAW rally to build support for the striking workers will take place April 18 at Hart Plaza in Detroit. For more information, 313-926-5312 or http://www.uawaam.org.

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