N.Y. UAW Workers Reject Contract

Seventy-six percent of the union members at the New Process Gear plant voted 'no' to a package of concessions, putting about 1,400 jobs in jeopardy.

EAST SYRACUSE, N.Y. (AP) -- Union workers at New Process Gear have rejected a new contract that its Canadian owners said was essential to keep the suburban Syracuse plant operating.

Seventy-six percent of the United Auto Workers members at the New Process Gear plant voted "no" to a package of concessions in balloting Monday and Tuesday, union officials said. The vote throws into doubt the future of about 1,400 jobs at the transmission parts plant.

"They're simply telling us that the offer that was on the table, the work rule changes were just too much, too fast and they didn't feel it was acceptable," said UAW Local 624 President Scott Stanton.

Magna International Inc. notified the union last month that it wanted to close the plant, Stanton said.

After local UAW officials asked for a meeting to find a way to keep operating, the Canadian company said it would need to cut $50 million in costs by July, or employees would face further wage reductions and a possible shutdown.

Stanton said employees who voted down the concessions felt they had already given up all they could.

"Inside of 12 months, my membership has given up 30 to 40 percent of their wages and benefits. They have done their part. This is not failure on my membership's part and I want everyone to understand that," Stanton said.

Magna did not immediately respond to a call for comment Wednesday morning.

Given the nation's turbulent economy and rising unemployment rates, some workers felt it was better to save their jobs.

"I want the jobs to stay. I think it's to the better of everybody. I think no matter what happens, jobs are scarce all over right now and I think if you can make the jobs stay for at least six more months, that's at least six more months," said employee Christine Kittell.

New Process Gear was founded in 1888 as the New Process Rawhide Co. The name was changed to New Process Gear in 1913, when it moved to making all metal gears for cars. The company makes transfer cases for trucks and sport utility vehicles.

At its height in 2002, the suburban Syracuse plant employed 4,000. When Magna bought the plant five years ago, it still had 3,700 workers.

Even if workers had approved the contract, Magna offered no assurances the plant would stay open.

Under the proposal, workers would have kept their current pay scale and received two previously promised payments totaling $37,500 from the company to help them transition to lower wages agreed to last year. But the work force would have been cut to 750 and workers would have lost a week's vacation and a couple of holidays.

"I will not work for $13 an hour. It wouldn't pay for my gas," said Vicki Thomas, 44, of Cato, who has worked at the plant for 10 years. "I'm employable. I can type 60 words a minute. I can do payroll."

"It's not about the $13," said Don Berti, who voted against the contract. "It's about ... the way they treated us as workers."

On Sunday, about 800 union members took part in raucous four-hour meeting where they vented their frustration at being asked yet again to sacrifice pay and benefits to keep the plant open. Last year, workers agreed to have their wages cut from $20.16 per hour from $29.11.

In return, the company promised to turn around the plant, which lost $117 million in 2007, by investing in new equipment, bringing in new product lines and diversifying its products.

Some workers said they believe the closing would be eased by a recent federal Department of Labor ruling that laid off New Process Gear workers are eligible for Trade Adjustment Assistance. The designation means that laid-off workers would get up to two years of unemployment compensation for as long as they train for a new skill.

NPG workers face a bleak job market. Unemployment in central New York is at 6.9 percent, its highest level since the early 1990s, said Karen Knapik-Scalzo, an economist in the Syracuse office of the state Department of Labor. The nation's jobless rate is 7.1 percent.

Stanton said he wasn't sure what the next step is.

"We'll be talking to the company in the near future. We still have customer demand, we have the Big Three buying our products and we're going to continue to get those products out the door," Stanton said.

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