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Clouds over axle plant mirror city's industry Automotive journal says plant already may be earmarked for shutdown

The solid gray-and-white buildings of the Buffalo Gear & Axle plant have anchored a swath of the city's East Side for decades.

They've also anchored Edward Lepkowski's family for two generations.

"My father worked here 30 years," the Lackawanna man said outside the plant on Friday. He followed for 29 1/2 years -- but now fears are rising that the plant is reaching the end of the line.

American Axle & Manufacturing's plant on East Delavan Avenue, the city's largest manufacturer, is losing work and may already be marked for shutdown, according to a report published in the industry journal Automotive News.

"A couple years ago this plant was doing tremendous," 30-year worker Jim Costa said as he arrived for work Friday. Now "we don't even know what's going on."

The Detroit-based company denies there's a final decision, and the United Auto Workers union continues to hold talks to save the plant.

George Jemiolo, shop chairman of UAW Local 424, is scheduled to meet with the company chairman, Richard Dauch, in Detroit next week.

"I think there's still hope," he said.

Closing the 700-job plant, which was built in 1923, would uproot an anchor of the Delavan Avenue neighborhood and snuff out a source of good-paying jobs for generations of area residents. The plant makesdrivetrain parts mainly for GM pickups and SUVs.

"There's no question it's an important manufacturing facility in the city -- it plays an important role in the economy," said Peter Cutler, spokesman for Mayor Byron W. Brown.

The factory has also been a magnet for public investment in the neighborhood, which has seen improvements to nearby streets and infrastructure, including funding for the company itself, he said. In 2005 the state awarded $400,000 in training funds for the company's three area plants, of which Delavan is the largest.

The uncertain future at American Axle reflects the rapid decline of blue-collar manufacturing, once the backbone of the region's economy, as well as the nation's.

Buffalo-area auto component makers lost 5,800 jobs since 2000, leaving about 9,000 in the spring of 2006, the most recent period on record. Last year, Ford, GM, Delphi and American Axle launched severance programs that may cut employment by an additional 2,000 jobs, once programs are complete this year.

Falling sales and rising productivity are forcing rapid changes throughout the auto industry, mirroring trends in U.S. manufacturing. Sales at GM, a major customer for Buffalo components plants, fell 9 percent last year.

"Many companies are faced with too many people," Dauch said in a conference call Thursday. "The overhead walks in on two feet."

Nearly 1,500 production workers took buyout offers to leave jobs at American Axle's U.S. plants in December, about 650 of them at the company's area plants in Buffalo, Cheektowaga and the Town of Tonawanda.

The auto industry decline is part of the larger manufacturing sector's 26 percent drop since 2000, leaving about 62,000 factory jobs in Erie and Niagara counties as of November.

Jemiolo, who has worked at the Delavan axle plant 39 years, has seen ups and downs in the auto business before. "When GM was selling a lot of trucks, my biggest complaint was we were working Sundays."

Now GM isn't selling as many trucks, and dark clouds have thickened over the plant. In September, it lost out on a new axle for Chevy's Camaro, which is assembled in nearby Oshawa, Ont. The axle went to a sister plant in Guanajuato, Mexico, some 2,000 miles from the assembly plant.

Workers say production machinery is being moved out. Since December, about 570 of them have followed suit, grabbing one of the company's buyout offers rather than gamble that their jobs will continue.

At age 48, Lepkowski wasn't one of them. Not yet eligible for full retirement benefits and with his own children still looking forward to college, he stayed on, hoping the factory that provided a livelihood for his father will see him through.

"At my age, I have a lot of years left to work," he said.

On Thursday, Dauch announced that he will idle some production of parts for General Motors' midsize trucks, such as the Chevy Colorado and related vehicles. Axles for those trucks are a major product at Delavan, but they are also produced at three other American Axle plants in Michigan and Mexico.

"It's premature to say we're closing or even idling" the Buffalo plant, company spokeswoman Renee Rogers said.

If the company does decide to idle Delavan, it won't have far to go. The remaining 700 workers are only about half the plant's former level in recent years. The union contract puts a freeze on shutdowns until February 2008, but the company may idle a plant and keep on a skeleton crew, a union official said.

GM sold the Delavan plant and its Tonawanda Forge to American Axle in 1994, marking what many GM families see as the beginning of the uncertainty there. Lepkowski's father, who started at the plant in 1963, retired in 1994 to keep his GM benefits.


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