June 4, 2009 at 12:22 pm

Travels With Charlie

American dream fades at Axle plant in Hamtramck

American dream fades at Axle plant in Hamtramck
American dream fades at Axle plant in Hamtramck: As the world focused on the collapse of General Motors Corp. and the goings-on at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue and 1 Wall Street, a sad but not unrelated scene played out this week at 2140 Holbrook St., for the members of UAW Local 235.

Hamtramck

As the world focused on the collapse of General Motors Corp. and the goings-on at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue and 1 Wall Street, a sad but not unrelated scene played out this week at 2140 Holbrook St.

At 5:57 a.m., Bill Alford, the president of UAW Local 235, shambled up the street to punch in for work at the American Axle & Manufacturing plant No. 8. He cut a pathetic figure Monday, one shoe untied and dressed in a hockey sweater with a large C embossed on the chest. C is for captain, but Alford is now the captain of almost nobody.

As GM declared bankruptcy, more than 500 UAW workers employed at the plant here quietly received a letter by FedEx informing them that they were indefinitely laid off. Normally presidents of local unions do not go to work at the plant, as management prefers not to have labor agitators on its factory floors. But when there are too few employees to do the work, Alford is required by contract to return to the plant.

And so Alford had the task of operating a forklift, loading crates of tools and machinery onto a truck bound for Texas, he said.

"They don't want a middle class," said Alford, 34, standing in the rain, the shoe still untied, referring not only to the managers of American Axle, but also the owners of industry in general. "I see that in the future people will have to move to Mexico for a job. This is a dark day for the American laborer."

General Motors may be entering a new chapter in its life, but the American worker still confronts the little problem of NAFTA and the cheap Mexican and subsidized Canadian labor he cannot compete with.

The plant, which straddles Detroit and Hamtramck, is the largest in Axle's sprawling worldwide manufacturing complex. It mainly produces axles for GM's heavy-duty pickups, which accounts for about three-quarters of its sales. American Axle management plans to keep operations running at its plant in Guanajuato, Mexico, while all but shutting down in Hamtramck.

Since American Axle was spun off from General Motors and reconstituted in 1994, the union negotiates with American Axle, not GM, and does not get the sweetheart deal other UAW workers will get. In fact, Local 235 went on strike for three months last year and lost. It was a cold, bitter dispute, complete with fires in the oil drums. The unionized workers, numbering nearly 2,000 at the time, gave in to deep wage cuts, in some cases from $28 an hour to $14, in exchange for keeping their jobs. Apparently it was not enough. Fewer than 300 union members were working in the plant Monday.

In the meantime, Dick Dauch, the CEO and chairman of American Axle, was given an $8.5 million bonus by his board of directors after the strike and gave assurances to the workers and the city of Hamtramck that he would keep production here.

Dauch, who at least until the strike had a reputation for believing in the competitiveness of U.S. manufacturing, could not be reached by telephone. But he told The Detroit News in April that he was fed up with the absenteeism and entitlement-mindset of the Michigan worker. The union calls the claims a bald-face lie, an excuse to move south of the border.

Chris Son, the director of communications at American Axle, called late Wednesday to say that the layoffs are "fallout from the GM and Chrysler shutdowns." He also confirmed that the Mexicans will continue to work as the Americans are out on the street.

"For logistical reasons, a level of production will continue in Mexico," said Son. "At the same time, there will be lower production requirements in Detroit. Other than that, I have no further comment on that matter."

Automobile jobs are still an underpinning of the American economy. One auto factory job creates as many as eight or nine others, according to the Center for Automotive Research. Cars and car parts contribute most greatly to the American trade imbalance along with electronic merchandise.

And, according to the Economic Policy Institute, Big Three motor vehicle production in Mexico increased by 4 percent while falling in the United States and Canada by 25 percent in 2008. As of 2006, Michigan has lost more than 61,000 jobs due to NAFTA -- and counting, the institute says. Household income in Michigan continues to fall and American workers are left to wonder where it all fell off.

"I'm not ever going to buy another Chevy," said Jeff Johnson, who came to the union hall to get an explanation. Johnson received the layoff notice on his birthday, mistaking the FedEx package for a present. "I'm not buying another new car because I'm not ever going to be able to afford a new car."

"Who knows," said Bill Cooper, the flamboyant city manager of Hamtramck, outside city hall. "American Axle is going to cost anywhere from a half-million to $2 million dollars in revenue to the city if it shuts down completely. It would just kill us. Somebody turn out the lights."

Beleaguered Hamtramck -- an industrial hamlet of 22,000 people that is completely surrounded by the city of Detroit -- is increasingly becoming a town with too many mice and not enough men. A welfare office is scheduled to open on Joseph Campau Street, once a difficult concept in this working class town.

The mayor had her car stolen last month and two weeks ago an elderly city councilman, Al Shulgon, tried to beat off a carjacker with a cane. He failed and the carjacker made off with his jalopy.

"If they're carjacking junkers now, imagine what the future's going to look like around here without American Axle," Cooper said. "If you see Dick, have him call me, I can't get a hold of him."

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Caution tape is wrapped around a turnstile at a parking lot access, where hundreds of workers once parked and headed for jobs at American Axle Manufacturing in Hamtramck. / Max Ortiz / The Detroit News
Bill Alford, president of UAW Local 235, had to return to the plant to ...
Jeff Johnson, who American Axle laid off on his birthday, says, ... (Max Ortiz / The Detroit News)