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United Auto Workers officials at Martinrea Heavy Stamping disputed a report Wednesday that they had rejected a final offer from the company to restructure their existing contract.
In a statement, General Manager Shawn Aldesberger said, "Martinrea regrets that the union has chosen to walk away from the table and not present the last proposals to the employees of Martinrea Heavy Stampings."
But Wednesday morning union committee members said that wasn't the case at all.
"In response to the press release the company put out yesterday [Tuesday], there's a lot of inaccuracies in that report, and there's some misleading comments and statements in that report as it was released to you folks," said Dwayne Gilbert, president of the local UAW. "There was no walking away from the table as was proposed. But to say that we walked away without anything is grossly unfair, and it's just an out and out lie."
Gilbert, a 20-year employee of the plant, said that when union members met with plant officials on Tuesday, the company presented them with some concerns they wanted the union to consider.
"They presented some of those items and said, 'Take a look at them and come back,' and we went back up about 45 minutes later to respond to two or three major issues, and they were gone, not even in the plant," he said. "As a matter of fact, they'd gone shopping, and they weren't there."
Gilbert said plant officials did not contact him after that, but just before the shift ended, he got another shock.
"At the end of the day, we got a call from you folks about a letter that had been posted in the plant," he told The Sentinel-News. "We didn't know anything about that [letter] until you called us. They never brought it to us, never did anything, just posted it on the plant board."
The letter Gilbert is referring to is Aldesberger's statement, which also said that, after reviewing company proposals, union members said there would be no more discussion and that the proposals were unacceptable. He also said that the UAW committee would not be presenting the company's proposals to the union membership.
Gilbert said plant officials should not have posted such a letter because the letter stated that the company wanted to notify employees of meetings to be held next week for the purpose of reviewing the company's last proposals to the union.
"That's an issue that we're looking at because they are potentially violating a labor law because we're the exclusive bargaining agent for the people," Gilbert said. "And for them to attempt to have meetings with the people on their own about the negotiations and an agreement is not allowed in the labor law as we see it. We're pursuing that actively right now."
In response on Wednesday, Aldesberger said, "At this point, the union has not notified the company for a date that they are interested in resuming negotiations. As a result, we have scheduled all employee meetings for next week. It might be of interest to you that if they are saying it's not true, then when are we negotiating?"
Gilbert said the union committee is always willing to meet with company officials.
"We are open at any point to further negotiations," he said. "We have been in some negotiations with the company over the past month to see if there was a way to restructure some things to potentially go on to save our jobs and keep the company competitive."
Martinrea, which manufacturers parts of sports-utility vehicles for Ford, has been in a steady decline along with the automotive industry. A workforce once in excess of 1,000 is now fewer than 200. And the remaining workers have endured lost of wages and benefits as the company has struggled to survive.
Gilbert said that union members already have agreed to a 43 percent wage and benefit reduction and that new discussions call for additional wage cuts.
"The company was wanting [us] to take a 56 percent reduction and go to a $20 all-in package, wages, benefits and everything, and that's a straight 56 percent cut across the board," he said.
Gilbert said that not only have wages been slashed, but also the retiree health care plan as well as medical insurance is also in a precarious balance.
"It's painful, and it's going to hurt," he said. "But we're still committed to try to find a way to save our jobs and save that facility, because that's our blood, sweat and tears. I know they own the building, but we built that place from day one. We've all got too much time invested in it to see it go away."
Charles Carter has also been at the plant for 20 years; Stan Sienicki has worked there for 12 years, and Mike Carey, vice president of the local union, has been on the job for 20 years.
All of them agree with Gilbert, that staying at the plant is very important to them.
Carter said his family is really having a tough time.
"My brother just lost his job; he worked at Noble," he said, referring to another Shelby County company that recently shut down, putting 79 employees out of work.
At the height of its productivity in 2004, Martinrea employed 1,150 workers. That number has been cut to 150 United Auto Worker members. However, 38 production personnel are being brought back to the plant for some temporary work, Gilbert said.
"There was a recall this week of production people just because of an increase in volume in Kentucky truck operations," he said. "It's a 3-to-4-week maximum and then those people will be going back out on permanent layoff."
He added that he is very concerned about the future of Martinrea.
"If nothing changes at all from our current status right now, and no new work comes into the plant, it is a very real possibility that that plant could close," he said.
Gilbert said he wants all negotiations to be done out in the open.
"It doesn't do any good to hide information," he said. "Sometimes the information we give them hurts, and they don't like it, and they get mad at us. But that's what it is. It's real, and you need to know the whole situation. That way, when it happens, you can't say well, we didn't know it all. Here it is, the good, the bad, the ugly."