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American Axle may close in March '08 E. Side plant could be idled by end of year, union says

Autoworkers at the American Axle plant in Buffalo say the company "unofficially" told them the plant will be idled by the end of this year and shuttered for good when the union contract expires in March 2008.

The shutdown of the Buffalo Gear & Axle plant would wipe out 650 high-wage jobs on the city's East Side.

"They've got one too many plants," said George Jemiolo, chairman of Local 424, United Auto Workers, in Buffalo.

American Axle & Manufacturing refused to comment. The Detroit-based company has said only that its factory on East Delavan Avenue is one of four nationally that could lose a production line.

"We have nothing new to say," spokeswoman Renee Rogers said.

Worries about the plant -- which cut half its jobs in the past year -- aren't new. In April, UAW officials said the plant faced shutdown unless new work was found.

A recent notice to members of Local 424 went beyond that, saying the company has set a time frame on the shutdown.

Task-reducing concessions by the UAW and offers of help from area development agencies haven't worked. Agencies have spoken with the company but haven't had word about the plant's future, said Alfred Culliton, chief financial officer of the Erie County Industrial Development Agency.

The union continues to lobby the company for new work while preparing to negotiate a severance agreement for workers, the notice said. It also warned workers to prepare for a possible strike when the agreement expires.

"We do not want to strike but we will do whatever may be needed to get a fair and equitable agreement," the notice said.

The Delavan plant, the city's largest factory by employment, is one of three American Axle operations in the area, which include a forge in the Town of Tonawanda and machine shop in Cheektowaga. Those sites have a combined 350 production jobs, a UAW official said.

"I don't think there'll be any impact on them," said Kevin Donovan, UAW Region 9 assistant director. The Tonawanda and Cheektowaga plants make an array of products shipped to factories in Michigan and elsewhere, including parts for Toyota and Mercedes-Benz, he said.

By contrast, the Delavan plant chiefly makes rear axle assemblies for GM's Colorado-Canyon family of compact pickups and SUVs.

About 40 of the current work force of 650 is laid off, the UAW official said.

The UAW local, chartered in 1937, would expire with the plant, Jemiolo said. "I'm assuming we would sell the union hall and dissolve the local."

The union cannot begin bargaining for a severance package until the pending shutdown is official, he said, perhaps explaining the company's official silence.

Under the UAW contract, plant closings are frozen until March of 2008. However, the Delavan plant could be idled with a skeleton crew of maintenance workers until then.

UAW officials stressed that the pending shutdown remains unofficial and that efforts to bring new work to the plant continue.

American Axle was created in 1994, when GM sold off pieces of its Saginaw parts division. The automaker still accounts for three-quarters of American Axle sales.

While its volume declines in North America, American Axle is ramping up business in China, where it opened its Changshu Manufacturing Facility last month.

The plant will supply rear axle assemblies for a 2009 all-wheel-drive vehicle made by China's Chery Automobile Co.


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