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Autoworkers at Eastman Machine Co. in Buffalo rejected the company's "final proposal" on Thursday, raising the stakes in a four-week work stoppage influenced by fears of work moving to Asia.

United Auto Workers Local 936 rejected the proposal by 82 percent, a union official said. The local represents 58 production workers at Eastman.

"The bargaining committee didn't think it was very fair, and the members obviously didn't think it was fair," said Kevin Donovan, UAW Buffalo area director.

Eastman, a maker of fabric-cutting machines on Washington Street, wants employees to contribute to rising health care costs. Even so, the proposed contract increases workers' total compensation by $250,000 over its three year term, the company said.

The prospect of a continuing strike forces the company to consider replacing strikers, outsourcing work, or moving production, representatives said. Eastman has hired 17 temporary replacements so far.

"It's always been my preference to keep jobs here in Buffalo," president Robert L. Stevenson said. However, "We can't go on indefinitely like this -- I think within a month we're going to have to fish or cut bait."

Influencing the strike are fears about the company's investment in a Chinese plant. The union has sought job guarantees, fearful that production could be sent to Asia.

The plant near Shanghai, a partnership venture with a Taiwan company, produces for the Chinese market, from which Eastman is otherwise shut out, Stevenson said. However, the company cannot guarantee a set number of production jobs, he said.

Tensions on the picket line are rising as Eastman employees are joined by UAW members from other plants.

"I don't have a problem with guys shouting at scabs who are taking their jobs," Donovan said.

Eastman pays $1,500 a day for guards at the plant's entrances, vice president for legal affairs Tim McCarthy said.


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