BY JOHN SARGE
DAYTON, Ohio - "We're trying to create more jobs so the younger generation has a future in this plant," said Mathew Mayer. He has worked for General Motors for 31 years. He gave an interview as he picketed the Needmore Road plant here March 16. "The company thought we would go back after a week. Now that we know we can shut down GM, we won't be back until we win our demands."
The strike here by 2,700 workers began March 5 at two GM brake parts plants and has ground the auto giant's production to a halt. As the walkout began to cause shortages of brake components in assembly plants, more than 166,000 have been idled and GM has shut down 26 of its 29 production factories in North America. Plants have shut down from Canada to Mexico, with half the nearly 60,000 parts-plant workers affected by the strike being in Mexico. The company is trying to deny unemployment benefits to laid-off workers in the U.S. - a de facto lock-out.
GM and other U.S. auto manufacturers use the "just in time" inventory system, which means assembly plants get parts as needed. This strike shows the power of parts workers under this system to affect production.
This is the longest strike against a major U.S. auto maker in 26 years, since a two-month strike against GM in 1970.
Thousands of other workers at non-GM owned parts plants have also been affected. At American Axle in Detroit some workers estimated at least 15 percent of the workers at the operation have already been laid off due to the strike. American Axle, which was sold off by GM three years ago, produces axles and other parts for many auto companies.
Some 3,000 members of Local 696 of the United Auto Workers Union (UAW) walked out March 5 over plans by GM to shift work out of the Dayton plants to lower cost suppliers, a practice called outsourcing, thereby threatening jobs.
Health and safety issues and staffing levels that lead to overtime also play a role. A plant manager has admitted in press interviews that workers in the Dayton factories average a shift and a half of overtime a week. Strikers report that it is closer to two shifts of overtime a week.
Big business is watching this strike carefully. The Investor's Business Daily reported that U.S. steelmakers were "concerned a prolonged stoppage could hurt their shipments and profits." Wall Street analysts estimate that GM alone is loosing $250 to $300 million a week because of the strike.
Company officials have made it clear they are prepared for a fight. GM made a $6.9 billion profit last year and has a higher than usual inventory of most cars and trucks, giving the auto giant flexibility to weather the walkout for a while.
The company has made it plain it intends to make as many workers as possible suffer to win this strike. GM announced it will attempt to block union workers laid off because of the strike from drawing unemployment insurance. The state of Texas is the only one so far that has ruled against GM workers' claims.
GM vice chairman Harry Pearce laid out GM's approach telling the press the company must choose parts suppliers based on lower cost, not keep GM parts plants operating. "If we must think in terms of creating UAW jobs, independent of our ability to compete in cost and quality... well, it's hard to imagine how we could live with this," Pearce said.
Wall Street investors are confident so far in this stand by the company. GM stock prices have been slowly but steadily rising during the last two weeks.
Workers on the picket lines are also confident in the face of GM's refusal to budge. UAW members in these plants have experienced GM's drive for profits for years. The only new workers brought into the Dayton plants over the last 10 years are workers laid off from other GM operations and transferred there under terms of the UAW national contract. This is the third walkout by the local over similar issues since the mid- 1980s.
The plants in Dayton are quiet, with small picket lines and mostly empty parking lots. At the Needmore Rd. plant eight strikers walk picket duty in four-hour shifts on two gates in front of a deserted parking lot.
At the Wisconsin Rd. plant, four strikers staff picket lines at each of a half dozen entrances. There is a little more activity here because the local union sent 300 workers back into the plant on the second day of the walkout to produce brakes for other auto makers. The pickets have to check the special union-issued passes of UAW members entering.
At times there are more non-strikers at some picket sites. On March 16, Dan Sponaugle and Eddie Neace had driven up from Cincinnati to offer their solidarity. Sponaugle said they were "showing our union support. Even though we're laid off we're supporting the strike." Sponaugle and Neace, both in their late 20s, said they were officers of the UAW local that had recently won its first contract at a GM parts supplier that announced lay offs due to the strike earlier in the week.
Among those who showed up and tried to win adherents among GM workers in Michigan, Ohio, and Illinois, was ultrarightist politician Patrick Buchanan who was campaigning in the Midwest in mid-March for the Republican nomination for U.S. president. Buchanan tried to use the strike to advance his reactionary "America First" themes by praising it as a fight against sending "American" jobs abroad. He did the same during the Machinists strike against Boeing in January, while he has attacked other strikes that can not serve his nationalist demagogy, such as an earlier walkout at the New York Daily News.
Buchanan was frequently photographed in Michigan and elsewhere sporting UAW hats and T-shirts with a few UAW members surrounding him. But television reports also quoted UAW workers saying they opposed the ultrarightist's campaign.
John Sarge is a member of UAW Local 900 and works for Ford in the Detroit area. Val Libby from Cincinnati and Dave Rowlands from Cleveland contributed to this article.
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