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Grass-roots Delphi activist holds firm Soldiers of Solidarity plans meetings, picketing

Delphi Corp. softened its labor stance last week when it withdrew its demand for deep wage cuts, but a militant autoworkers group isn't dropping its guard.

"The signal it sends to us is to keep up the pressure," autoworker activist Gregg Shotwell said. "We have a pretty clear impression of (Delphi CEO) Steve Miller. He's not a person who cares about working people one iota."

A machine operator in Delphi's fuel injector plant in Coopersville, Mich., Shotwell is the leader of a rank-and-file organization called Soldiers of Solidarity, or SOS, that operates outside the control of United Auto Workers officialdom.

Fueled by workers' anger over Miller's hard line stance on wage cuts and benefit rollbacks, the group has attracted adherents and proposed fighting back with a "work-to-rule" production slowdown, taking a more militant position than the UAW.

"We're making it clear we want to go on strike and we want to shut down GM," Shotwell said.

One of the group's rank-and-file meetings for Delphi workers and supporters is scheduled to be held in Lockport on Jan. 8. The group also plans to picket the Detroit Auto Show on the same day, giving its protest a high-profile platform to criticize Delphi and its former parent General Motors.

Four previous rank-and-file meetings in Michigan and Ohio have drawn about 150 people at each event, Shotwell said. Attendees are mainly Delphi workers, supplemented by sympathetic workers and retirees from other companies.

But whether the grass-roots effort will continue to gain traction remains to be seen, as labor tension at Delphi eases, at least for the moment.

Last week, the bankrupt auto parts maker withdrew its demand for a 60 percent wage cut and benefit rollbacks. It also moved back the date it will petition the bankruptcy court to cancel its union contracts to Feb. 17. The involvement of former parent GM in talks with the autoworkers was the reason for backing away from the demands, Delphi said.

UAW officials in Detroit called the moves "a step in the right direction."

Union officials note that UAW members are free to attend whatever meetings they like and to say what they please. However, the UAW differs with hard-liners over tactics, having stopped short of carrying out a work-to-rule slowdown.

"Let the parties negotiate," said Paul Siejak, president of UAW Local 686 Unit 1 in Lockport, which represents about 3,000 Delphi production workers. He said the withdrawal of Delphi's wage demands should allow time to develop a dialogue that could lead to negotiated solution.

While UAW members are free to support SOS, "I feel it's a certain group trying to take advantage of the situation right now," Siejak said.

Work-to-rule means workers would stop taking common shortcuts or otherwise deviate from written job instructions, leading to lower production. Remarks by UAW president Ron Gettelfinger in November seemed to warm to the work-to-rule idea, but the national organization didn't endorse it as policy or instruct local units to carry it out.

According to the company, it doesn't appear that many workers are practicing the tactic. At the Delphi Thermal & Interior plant in Lockport, output is at high levels, Delphi spokesman Lindsey Williams has said, with some products at near-record volumes.

Shotwell, a 27-year veteran of GM and Delphi, said the SOS group channels workers' anger at what they feel is an artificial crisis. Many longtime workers like himself suspect GM of engineering the bankruptcy by spinning off Delphi, its former parts arm, in 1999, in an effort to dump its pension liabilities.

Advocating a more militant course than the union leadership shouldn't necessarily splinter Delphi workers, and may help UAW officials bring pressure to bear in negotiations, Shotwell said.

"If sometimes people say we're hurting the union, our response is 'we are the union.' "

e-mail: fwilliams@buffnews.com

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