American Axle local approves contract, ends GM strike

UAW workers at American Axle & Manufacturing axl ratified a contract between the union and the company Thursday, union officials said, ending a 12-week strike against the Detroit supplier that rippled through the auto industry.

The landmark deal for American Axle drops the company's labor costs to become more competitive and marks a painful turning point for workers who face adjustment to steeply lower wages.

American Axle said Friday it expects to have its plants running next week. Workers on Thursday night expected the company to call in electricians and other skilled trades workers over the Memorial Day holiday weekend to prepare the plants to reopen.

The vote in favor of the contract at UAW Local 235 in Hamtramck — representing 2,000 workers — ensured that the deal would be ratified nationwide.

The UAW said 78% of workers nationwide approved the contract. In Hamtramck, 71% of workers voted for the contract — 1,172 in favor to 479 opposed, said Erik Webb, co-chairman of the local's election committee.

The deal ends a strike that forced General Motors gm to shut or cut output at more than 30 plants, forcing the automaker — and as a result, several suppliers — to lay off thousands of workers. The lost production further weakened the nation's economy, and the layoffs ensured that Michigan would continue to have one of the nation's highest unemployment rates. The automaker offered $218 million to help settle the strike.

"Our members have had to make some tough decisions for themselves and their families and have done so with careful deliberation," UAW President Ron Gettelfinger said.

"I'm pleased that the local will be getting back to work," said Bill Alford Jr., incoming president of UAW Local 235.

While the vote at the UAW's largest local at American Axle was expected to pass, those who opposed it said the vote with was their last chance to express dissatisfaction with the deal and the company.

But surely, returning will be difficult because the strike soured the relationship between workers and company Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Dick Dauch, known for walking the plant floor and knowing workers' names.

Tiffany Gardner, 33, of Detroit said she figured the deal would pass, but she decided to vote against it as her only way to protest.

Since Sunday, when the contract's details were revealed to workers, Gardner said, she listened to co-workers who worried that a no vote would affect their chances of taking a buyout or returning to work. Still, Gardner was not swayed.

"At least I can say I did what I thought was best," she said.

Armando Hernandez, 43, of Dearborn Heights said the contract — while tough to accept — would give him time to develop a strategy to leave.

"I had no choice but to vote in favor of it," Hernandez said, adding that he didn't want a no vote to hurt his chances of taking a buyout of up to $105,000, depending on the size of his wage cut.

Ben Whitmore, a 58-year-old electrician from Lincoln Park, also said he voted for the deal. "I don't think they're going to get any better. It's time to go back to work," he said.

As workers voted Thursday, they thought about how their lives would change.

Dion Walters, 37, of Clinton Township said he expects to take a buyout and work for a trucking company. "I'm not going to see my family as much," said Walters, a hi-lo driver.

Walters voted against the contract, which would cut his pay by more than $10 an hour.

"It's a no-win for us," he said. The union lost its leverage, in part, because of the shift in U.S. vehicle sales toward small cars. The strike took place just as production for American Axle's bread-and-butter products — SUV and pickup axles — is declining. Automakers are cutting production of those vehicles as consumers turn to more fuel-efficient cars.

On Thursday, lawn chairs, burnt-out steel barrels and even a barbecue remained at former strike sites along Holbrook and the streets surrounding American Axle's sprawling manufacturing complex that straddles Detroit and Hamtramck.

Strikers withstood several blizzards during a walkout that stretched from the heart of winter into spring.

But the weather wasn't their toughest test. Striking workers survived on $200 a week in strike pay from the UAW, and some of the strikers' supporters recently started to lobby for that pay to be doubled.

Throughout the strike, American Axle said it needed concessions to become competitive with its U.S. rivals, including Dana Holding , which is freshly out of bankruptcy.

American Axle has been considered the last of the major auto suppliers paying assembly-line-level wages of about $28 an hour.

Along with the national agreement, workers voted Thursday to accept a local contract that spells out work rules for the Detroit gear and axle plants along Holbrook.

The local contract includes a stricter attendance policy. It ends the use of indoor, designated smoking areas, which means that if workers want to take a smoke break, they must go outside.

It also reinforces a new overtime policy included in the national agreement. Instead of overtime starting after 8 hours of work in a day, it starts after 40 hours of work in a week.

Contact JEWEL GOPWANI at 313-223-4550 or