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UAW workers picket in W.Va.

September 25, 2007

MARTINSBURG, W.VA. - Members of United Auto Workers Local 1590 were prepared to picket outside the General Motors parts distribution center north of Martinsburg all night as part of the union's nationwide strike that began late Monday morning.

"We're here as long as we need to be," Local 1590 President Ken Collinson said in an interview near the intersection of G.M. Access Road and W.Va. 9, where more than a dozen employees gathered shortly after the strike was called at 11 a.m.

Waving red-and-white placards announcing the strike, the group shouted their reasons for picketing in unison to motorists - "job security," "retirement benefits" and "health care," among others. About 60 union members were taking part in the picketing at several sites around the outskirts of the plant.

"I'm going to be a retiree here soon," said Rick Kern of Martinsburg, W.Va. "I'm out here protecting what they have and my future ... Basically, we're out here fighting for our survival."

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When hired in 1979, Kern said he was one of about 1,100 workers at GM's operation in Martinsburg. The plant now employs about 200, including 157 union workers, along with hourly employees and management.

"There's a bunch of parts out here (now) that are made in China," Kern said of the auto industry's battle to compete with international production.

"They're taking our jobs. The good-paying manufacturing jobs are leaving the country in droves," said Kris Lundberg, a third-generation unionized auto worker.

A "GM gypsy," Lundberg's "home plant" is in Flint, Mich., where she said her mother and her grandmother worked, and her parents met.

"I've seen the benefits and the difference it can make in the workplace," Lundberg said.

The plant now employs about 1,000 people, down from more than 13,000, she noted.

"Every time I go home, it's worse and worse," said Lundberg, who arrived at the Martinsburg plant in 1991.

Lundberg noted that in previous negotiations, employees gave up about a $1 an hour increase in pay to assist with the company's previous benefits commitment to retirees like Hugh Dodson of Inwood, W.Va., and her mother, who cried over the phone and told her to thank her coworkers for making the concession.

"I'm 64 years old, and it's scary for people like us," said Dodson, who came out to support the picketing employees. "We can't afford not to have it."

Dodson said his heart surgery bills would have amounted to more than $100,000 without the benefits he receives.

"The public has got to be made aware of what's going on with trade in our country," Dodson said, referring to outsourcing of work to other countries where labor is relatively cheap. "We're losing jobs."

Dodson dismissed the suggestion that unions have abused their power to extract exorbitant concessions, noting the plight of coal miners, particularly in the last couple of years and the millions that company executives are still collecting at the top.

Collinson said about 850 of West Virginia's 3,500 UAW retirees, including other manufacturers, are from the Martinsburg plant.

Though not really wanting to strike in what he described as "tough times," Collinson said the local is in full support of the union's international president in negotiations with GM.

"You really hate to do this," Kern said. "But sometimes you have to do what you have to do."

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