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Job losses at IAC Strasburg automotive plant spur protests

By Lorraine Halsted
The Winchester Star

Strasburg � In response to the latest layoffs at International Automotive Components, employees took to the streets Wednesday to protest the company's decision to send 110 jobs to Mexico.

By early afternoon, more than 50 employees had gathered outside the company's main office building on Queen Street, holding colorful signs and waving them at cars, some of whose drivers sounded their horns to show support as they passed by.

The layoffs are tied to IAC's production of GM truck and SUV consoles, which the company is moving to another of its plants in Mexico, said Richie Franklin, a Stephens City resident and bargaining chairman of United Auto Workers Local 2999, which represents IAC employees.

"We believe that it is extremely important that the American people know what is going on with the loss of our jobs, and that we have a shining example of it going on right here in Strasburg, and that this nonsense of outsourcing needs to stop now," he said.

Franklin said this is the third layoff within 12 months for the Strasburg plant, which produces car components for GM, Chrysler, Ford, and other automakers.

The first occurred last summer when IAC lost a 20-year contract with Ford to make door panels for its F-150 pickup trucks, according to Franklin.

The second, in December, was tied to the shutdown of a Chrysler plant in Delaware.

Steve Baker, an IAC employee for 11 years, was laid off in December, but was called back to work on the GM consoles in March after the plant received the contract for the work.

Then he was laid off again in May.

"They told me this time, it would be a permanent layoff," he said.

Baker and other IAC employees who took part in the demonstration Wednesday said they are angry that federal officials have not restricted the bailout money for the nation's troubled automakers � such as the $20 billion that GM has received in government loans � to keep domestic auto-related jobs within U.S. borders.

Franklin gave one reason why IAC moved the jobs to Mexico: the plant there is closer to the GM facility in Arlington, Texas, which purchases the majority of the SUV and truck consoles.

Baker said he thinks IAC was also lured by the cheap labor.

"They make in a week, down there, what we make in a day," he said.

Debbie Twigg, an IAC employee and Front Royal resident, said she hoped the protest would catch the attention of politicians who represent the area.

"We hope Washington wakes up," she said. "This year, our senators and congressmen are up for election, and we are watching their votes."

Though Franklin said it's unlikely that IAC officials will change their minds about sending the console production to Mexico, Betsy Sayers, an IAC employee and Winchester resident, said she hopes the protest will sway them against doing it again in the future.

"I hope the company will have the foresight not to sell off our jobs and take them out of the country," she said.

The three layoffs since last summer have cut IAC's workforce by more than half. In April 2008, Franklin said, the company had 677 employees, adding that it now has just under 330.

Franklin also said IAC has been struggling since 2007, when it asked workers at the Strasburg plant to take a $4.33-per-hour wage and benefit cut and give up some of their holidays.

Baker said they were asked to take another pay cut in April, but UAW Local 2999 turned it down.

"They already took away most of our holidays," he said. "We only had Thanksgiving and Christmas."

Karen Foster, president of Local 2999 and a production operator at IAC for 21 years, said the loss of jobs at the plant has far-reaching effects because employees commute from all over the area to work at the Strasburg plant.

"We have workers from the tri-state area �Virginia, West Virginia, and Maryland," the Warren County resident said. "So the job losses affect not only the community of Strasburg, but also communities throughout the region.

Franklin said Dearborn, Mich.-based IAC is considering closing several of its plants, but has not said if the Strasburg facility will be one of them.

But Franklin said he doesn't think the Strasburg plant will close soon.

"We've been their most profitable plant in the past two years," he said, adding that the plant also has three major contracts for production work through 2014.

But the layoffs and news of possible plant closings have left employees feeling insecure about the future of their jobs, Foster said.

"I think everyone is wondering how low can we go before they shut the door."

Steve Baker of Winchester was protesting Wednesday at International Automotive Components in Strasburg.

Protesters, including members of United Auto Workers Local 2999, hold signs outside the International Automotive Components plant in Strasburg Wednesday.