Help Wanted: Scab Labor Needed?

March 31, 2008

These days, a help wanted ad draws more interest than normal, here in Detroit, especially when it’s from one of the auto industry’s troubled suppliers. But one ad, in particular, is drawing intense scrutiny, a classified item in the suburban Oakland Press that reads,

“Employment offered to applicants…to fill anticipated attrition replacement openings after negotiations or in place of employees involved in…strike.”

The strike in question is the more than month-long walked that has shuttered operations at American Axle & Manufacturing and which, in turn, has all but brought the supplier’s largest customer, General Motors, to its knees. With key components in short supply, GM has been forced to close one assembly line after another, and as of today, at least 30 of its plants have been idled, with more likely to follow within days. Production of the Cadillac DTS, shown above, is among the latest GM models to be put on hold.

American Axle founder Dick Dauch was long hailed as a hero by the United Auto Workers Union for saving the company’s struggling operations – which were previously owned by GM and were considered highly likely to close because of quality and cost issues.

Under Dauch, American Axle became increasingly competitive, but the situation changed, last Summer, the company has argued, in the wake of the UAW’s new contracts with Detroit’s Big Three. Among other things, the union has agreed to permit GM, Ford and Chrysler to create a two-tier wage system, replacing thousands of current blue-collar workers with new employees making half as much, or about $14 an hour. American Axle has been demanding similar concessions, triggering the UAW walkout.

A spokesperson for the supplier told the Detroit News that American Axle is not seeking scabs, but the wording of the new classified ad would suggest that it is holding that as a possibility, should the strike drag on. Certainly, American Axle is under increasing pressure from its customers, notably GM, to end the labor confrontation. But those automakers also hope to benefit from the reduced parts costs American Axle would get if the union caves in. And the threat of scab labor in the current economic environment clearly puts pressure on the UAW to find a peaceful solution.

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