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Seniority Issues Behind Strike At GM's Fairfax Plant

Local union president said GM wants to disregard seniority when placing employees in jobs at the plant and added that workers would not return without a seniority agreement.

KANSAS CITY, Kan. (AP) -- Union workers who are striking at General Motors' Fairfax plant say they are prepared to stay out for a long time, but they're hopeful a new contract will be negotiated soon.

United Auto Workers Local 31 went on strike Monday morning after negotiations for a local contract failed. Union workers cited seniority rights as the most important issue delaying a local contract, which would supplement the national contract GM hourly workers ratified in October.

Jeff Manning, president of the local, said the company wants to disregard seniority when placing employees in jobs at the plant. He said the workers would not return to the plant without a seniority agreement.

Manning said he had hoped the strike could be averted.

''We didn't believe that this was going to happen,'' he said. ''We prepared for it, we knew the possibility was there. We knew we had our membership's backing. It's too bad this is what it came to.''

A lengthy strike could be crippling for GM because the workers at the Fairfax plant make the Chevrolet Malibu, a medium-sized sedan that has been selling well since it was redesigned and launched last fall.

From January through April, GM had sold 58,126 Malibus, up 32 percent from the same period last year. Sales were up 55 percent in April.

Some of the workers on the picket lines hoped the plant's Malibu production would help speed the end of the strike.

''It is in our favor that we make the Malibu,'' said C.J. Griffin, 50, of Gladstone, as other strikers nodded in agreement. ''It's the company's number one car and I don't think GM can keep us idle for too long.''

The strike comes as GM is trying to end another walkout at its GM plant in Delta Township near Lansing, Mich. Other UAW locals in Wyoming, Warren, Mich., and Mansfield, Ohio, are negotiating.

Jeff Schuster, executive director of global forecasting for J.D. Power and Associates, said GM needs to settle the local union strikes quickly because it has only a 30- to 40-day supply of Malibus and 40- to 50-day supply of large crossover vehicles such as the Buick Enclave. A 60-day supply is optimal by industry standards.

''These are going to start impacting volume as well as market share and profits,'' he said.

GM announced last week that it lost $3.3 billion in the first quarter, due largely to one-time charges and North American losses that offset gains in the rest of the world.

Chester Massbenburg, of Lenexa, who has worked at the Fairfax plant for 31 years, said he and others were prepared to stay out even though it might mean financial hardship.

''I can't say this is a bad time (to strike),'' Massenburg said. ''It's just time. We have to stand up for our rights. This is a good company, but sometimes you have to go through these things.''

GM spokesman Dan Flores in Detroit said the company will consider increasing Malibu production at its Orion Township, Mich., plant.

But Schuster said increasing Malibu production at that plant would reduce output of the Pontiac G6 mid-size car, which is made at the same factory.

Industry analysts have speculated that the UAW is trying to pressure GM to coax American Axle and Manufacturing Holdings Inc. into ending a bitter nine-week strike. About 3,600 UAW workers at five American Axle plants have been striking since Feb. 26.

GM accounts for 80 percent of American Axle's parts business.

Gary Chaison, a labor specialist at Clark University in Worcester, Mass., said that UAW is trying to pressure the company to get the American Axle deal done.

''Bargaining has intensified a great deal, and I think what the UAW is trying to do is just wrap it up,'' Chaison said Monday.

Chaison predicted the American Axle strike would end within a week, followed quickly by deals in Kansas City and Delta Township.

But Manning said Monday's action had ''nothing to do with'' the Axle walkout.

And he said it made him angry that union members are walking picket lines while the nation's economy is faltering.

''I'm sure there's a good number of people in this facility that are in a double-income families and this is the larger income of the two,'' Manning said. ''It's going to be tough but we will continue to plug ahead.''

Associated Press Writer Tom Krishner in Detroit contributed to this report.

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