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Tough talk from United Auto Workers (UAW) leaders will abound at the union’s convention in Las Vegas June 11-15, which takes place amid the union’s strike threat at bankrupt parts maker Delphi Automotive Systems.
But back at Delphi’s Needmore Road brake plant in Dayton, Ohio, management is still ratcheting up the pressure on the members of UAW Local 696.
A decade ago, Local 696 demonstrated that the declining UAW still had strength when a strike by the local shut down virtually all of General Motors’ production across North America. Today, with Delphi demanding wage cuts of up to 60 percent and seeking to void union contracts in bankruptcy court, it’s management that is using the Needmore Road plant to flex its muscles.
On May 5, management ordered an indefinite suspension for the local union’s shop committee chair, Tony Keen, after he told workers to shut down machines because of unsafe conditions. When Local 696 President Joe Buckley arrived on the scene, management accused him of trespassing and called police, who arrested him.
As every UAW old-timer knows, suspending the chair of the shop committee-a UAW local’s top representative in the plant-is a provocation, a move guaranteed to trigger a walkout, if not an all-out strike. And the arrest of the local president on the shop floor? Unthinkable.
Yet Buckley urged workers to stay on the job, even as he was taken out of the plant in handcuffs by Dayton, Ohio police, according to workers on the scene. Instead, Buckley-who didn’t return repeated phone calls requesting comment for this article-asked a well-known union activist in the plant, Dan Lamb, to call a press conference about the incident.
Lamb, who had challenged Buckley for the local presidency in the last election, explained the situation to the media and workers in the plant’s parking lot. Days later, Lamb was himself placed on indefinite suspension after management accused him of failing to perform his duties.
Keen was eventually permitted to return to work after several days off the job-long enough for management to make the UAW appear weak in advance of a possible strike, and show who’s boss.
The message to veteran union members from Delphi couldn’t be clearer: Take early retirement or buyouts, or be prepared to take a wage cut and be hounded out of your job with practically nothing.
For his part, Dan Lamb returned to work after a week. But shortly after, he was suspended for another week, again without pay.
Lamb expected to be a target. He’s a member of Soldiers of Solidarity, a network of rank-and-file UAW activists formed last year that has been organizing work-to-rule campaigns in several Delphi plants and pressuring the UAW international to resist concessions.
When Lamb returned to work following his second suspension, management raised the stakes even higher. As Lamb worked machining parts for auto brakes, he had an audience of two supervisors, two foremen and someone from the plant’s labor relations office, all watching and waiting for an excuse to throw him out of work again.
Their aim, Lamb said, is obvious: “They are trying to starve me and my family out.”
STARVING FOR the sake of a labor struggle-literally-is something that the 45-year-old Lamb has done before. He went on hunger strike for 35 days in 1998 in an effort to organize the Airborne Express contractor where he was working.
Although he and his coworkers wore Airborne uniforms and customers believed they were dealing with a major corporation, Lamb actually worked for a contractor called Boone Cartage, where the average wage was $7 per hour, family health insurance deductions were $340 per month, and retirement benefits amounted to precisely zero.
Since the medical benefits at Boone Cartage were so costly, Lamb’s wife Laurie got health care coverage for herself, Dan and their two sons by working at Berry Network, the Yellow Pages marketing company. To supplement the family’s income, Dan kept up his own lawn care business on the side.
Then came the Teamsters union victory over UPS in the summer of 1997-and with it, the inspiration to organize nonunion Airborne subcontractors like Boone. By November, nearly three-quarters of the 60 workers at Boone Cartage voted to join Teamsters Local 957, and they elected Lamb as their shop steward.
Management responded by cutting routes and laying off activists-which prompted an unfair labor practices charge from the local and Lamb’s hunger strike.
Lamb continued to work during his water-only fast, coaching football at night and even at one point grilling hamburgers for his co-workers. The Teamsters International brought him into contract negotiations with Airborne to raise the issue of subcontracting.
Boone Cartage decided the pressure wasn’t worth it and sold the routes to another company-which promptly laid off Lamb and another leading Teamster activist. The organizing drive failed.
THEN, UNEXPECTEDLY, Lamb suddenly had a chance for a quintessential American Dream job-at the GM Needmore Road brake plant, with its union wages and benefits. The hiring of several hundred workers-through referrals, not open hiring-came as GM was preparing sell the plant as part of the spinoff of its parts division into Delphi.
But that didn’t spell automatic job security. Lamb and the other new hires were temps for three years-meaning that they could have been out of a job without union protection.
In 2003 came word that Delphi would close the Needmore Road plant and leave the newer hires with only a brief taste of the good wages and benefits that the UAW had achieved.
The city of Dayton rushed to give Delphi a 10-year, 75 percent tax abatement for the Needmore Road plant and another facility. In return, the company agreed to keep at least 1,300 workers at the two plants for the duration of the abatement in 2010.
Dan and Laurie Lamb figured that the deal was good enough to make a down payment for their first house. After all, they’d already managed to put their oldest son through Ohio University with the help of Dan’s bigger paycheck.
“With the wages I make now, $27 per hour, I could pay off my house by 2010,” he said. “If I have to take a pay cut, I’m going to owe someone some money for the place I live for the next 25 years. I’ll have to struggle to pay the interest, never mind the principal.”
For those who stay, Delphi is demanding a pay cut-to $16.50 per hour if the GM pitches in, to as low as $12.50 if not. What’s more, the company plans to sell or close 21 of its 29 plants in the U.S.-including the Needmore Road factory. The hourly workforce in the U.S. would be cut from 33,000 to about 10,000-less than the management and white-collar employees who would remain to run Delphi’s worldwide operations.
Lamb said he’s angry-not only at corporate chiefs who move jobs to what he calls “Communist China” in order to “line their pockets,” but at UAW officials who have collaborated with Delphi, GM and other companies to downsize their workforces.
This time, there are early retirement packages for workers with 26 or more years on the job. According to a management press release, Delphi workers who aren’t eligible to retire will have the option of a buyout of $140,000 if they have more than 10 years on the job, and $70,000 if they have less.
The money may sound good-but it isn’t, Lamb said. “The people in the plant with less than 10 or 15 years experience are going to lose everything we have,” he said. “In Dayton, you don’t have a job guarantee for 10 years. That’s job security you can’t get anywhere”-especially if you’re in your 40s or 50s, he added.
For now, Lamb has decided to stay-and keep fighting. “I never had the American Dream,” he said. “There’s no one out there who’s going to take care of me.”