Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Chrysler tech center workers may have lost jobs to H-1B contractors, union claims

Automaker says visa holders aren't doing work previously done by laid-off union members

Computerworld - Karen Trevaski worked at Chrylser LLC's technical center in Auburn Hills, Mich., until she was laid off two weeks ago along with 119 other employees. But Trevaski claims that foreign workers with H-1B visas remain on the job at Chrysler, using software systems similar to the one she used to design automotive parts.

Moreover, Trevaski believes that the H-1B workers were encouraged to learn a new version of Dassault Systèmes SA's Catia software, while she was not. "We had to fight to get V5 training," Trevaski said this week. "And the H-1B workers — they were just sending them for the training. That's why I'm angry — it's just totally wrong. It seems as if they just want to get rid of union people."

United Auto Workers Local 412, which represents the laid-off tech workers, is considering whether it should file a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board, according to Walt Atkins, the local's first vice president.

"Why," Atkins asked, "have they got these people over here from another country, taking up American jobs, and [then] laying off American workers?" He said that there may be as many as 150 H-1B visa holders working for contractors in the technical center at Chrysler.

Chrysler spokeswoman Michelle Tinson said that the company has contract employees "in a variety of nonbargaining-unit positions, including managerial, engineering and other highly technical roles."

But Tinson said UAW members such as Trevaski may be mistaken in their belief that the contract workers are doing work that is similar to the work they did at the company. "We're not aware of any contract employee being used to perform traditional bargaining unit work," Tinson said. "If any such cases are brought to our attention, we will investigate and make corrections as appropriate."

In January, just prior to the recent layoffs at the technical center, Chrysler said it was forming a new design team and expanding its engineering activities overseas. At the time, The Detroit News reported that union officials were concerned about the outsourcing of jobs to other countries.

However, Tinson said that the most recent layoffs were part of an overall workforce reduction and weren't related to the overseas engineering expansion plan. Last February, the company said it would lay off 13,000 employees over a three-year period, and it added 4,000 more workers to the reduction plan in November.

Tinson added that Chrysler has reduced its contract labor workforce by 37%, or about 2,000 people, over the past year. "It's not as if the contract employees are not being affected with layoffs," she said.

Scott Watkins, a consultant at Anderson Economic Group LLC in East Lansing, Mich., said product design workers such as Trevaski aren't necessarily more vulnerable to layoffs than anyone else who works in the U.S. auto industry, because of the shrinking market share of automakers based here.

"Right now, I think everybody in the domestic automotive industry is vulnerable," Watkins said. "The vulnerability isn't necessarily related to a certain occupation or skill set. It's an industrywide vulnerability."

Watkins did say that Chrysler workers may have lost some clout after German-based automaker Daimler AG sold Chrysler to Cerberus Capital Management in August, bringing the U.S. company under private ownership.

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