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UAW says axle plant here is in trouble Effort is under way to find new production

Top United Auto Workers officials say that American Axle & Manufacturing plans to close its Buffalo plant if new production work isn't brought to the East Side facility.

An American Axle spokeswoman would not confirm the disclosure by UAW officers during an online forum Thursday.

But national and local union leaders said it appears the facility could close by the end of the year unless last-ditch talks aimed at bringing new work to the plant succeed.

"We recognize this is a difficult challenge, but we are not giving up on this effort," UAW President Ron Gettelfinger and UAW Vice President Jimmy Settles said in the online discussion.

Company spokeswoman Renee Rogers declined to comment beyond repeating a January statement that the Buffalo facility is one of several American Axle plants being idled because of excess capacity.

The latest comments are not surprising and only add to long-standing fears over the plant's prospects and the decline in the American automotive industry, local UAW leaders said.

"I've told my members, 'The future doesn't look so good,' " George M. Jemiolo, chairman of the bargaining committee of UAW Local 424 at the Buffalo American Axle plant, said Saturday.

Losing the East Delavan Avenue plant, which opened in 1923, would be a body blow to its East Side neighborhood and its 650 union workers.

The plant's uncertain future is a reflection of the struggles of the auto industry in this country and of the decline of manufacturing in general in this region.

Buffalo Niagara auto component makers have lost 5,800 jobs since 2000, leaving about 9,000 in the spring of 2006, the most recent figures show.

The Buffalo Gear & Axle plant, the largest of the three area American Axle facilities, has seen its work force shrink to half in recent years.

The East Delavan Avenue plant produces drive-train parts mainly for General Motors pickups and SUVs and serves as a draw for public investment in the surrounding neighborhood. The state in 2005 awarded $400,000 in training funds for the three area plants. The other two are in Cheektowaga and Town of Tonawanda.

American Axle in January confirmed that it planned to idle workers at its American plants -- including the Buffalo facility -- that produce parts for mid-size light trucks, a segment of the market that is declining.

The company has said little since then, despite growing speculation over the Buffalo plant.

UAW national officials Thursday were responding to two online questions from area workers when they offered their view that the company planned to shutter the Delavan plant.

"We are actively trying to work with the company to put additional work into the Buffalo facility. If we are unsuccessful in those efforts, we are going to work at getting a severance package for our members presently working there," Gettelfinger and Settles said.

Kevin Donovan, Buffalo-area UAW director, said the company and union are negotiating to bring new work to the plant, but he wouldn't provide details.

Jemiolo said there is new production work available from Ford and DaimlerChrysler.

"I hold out hope for that," he said. "It will be hard to get."

The union and company have negotiated work-rule changes to enhance efficiency at the facility if that new production work is obtained, Jemiolo said.

Still, the longtime plant employee said it may not be enough.

Jemiolo said he believes the company will make a decision whether to close the Buffalo plant by the end of the year, and if so would close the facility almost immediately.

"Not knowing what's going to happen one way or another, it's tough on everyone," he said.

Buffalo Mayor Byron W. Brown and other city officials are monitoring the situation, said Peter Cutler, a Brown spokesman.

"The mayor has said before he'd like to work with all parties -- management, union representatives and elected officials -- to ensure the facility remains viable," Cutler said.

News Business Reporter Fred O. Williams contributed to this report.

-mail: swatson@buffnews.com

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