Ford workers: 'It's not over 'til it's over'by Marisa Helms, Minnesota Public Radio
Many workers at the Ford Assembly plant in St. Paul say they're trying to get over the shock the company's decision to close the facility in 2008. The Ford Motor Company announced Thursday it will close assembly plants both in St. Paul and Norfolk, Virginia. The Twin Cities plant employs nearly 1,900 workers. Some of those workers say they're not giving up hope that the plant will somehow remain open.
St. Paul, Minn. — Ford assembly workers on the second shift got off early for the Easter weekend. Many headed to a nearby bar for a few drinks and commiseration.
Debbie, a Ford worker who wouldn't give her last name says she's a 30-year-old single mom who's worked at the plant for 10 years. Her father has worked there for more than 40 years and she says she has younger sisters who work there too. She's worried about what will happen to everyone.
"You know what? I have devoted my life to Ford," she says. "That's our bread and butter. It's not the money. It's benefits. It's everything. You get the whole lifestyle here and we're a family. We really are a family here. Ford is its own world. We stick together."
Debbie says she and many of her colleagues feel a little betrayed by Ford's decision to close the plant.
"It is dumb," she says. "We've always been best in class. Quality number one, everything. People I work with, my family at work, we've always cared. It's always been about quality, being number one, getting the job done. And this turns around, and, you gotta ask, why? I mean, really, why?"
The plant's history of quality work leaves union leaders feeling they have a chance to convince Ford officials to change their mind.
Union bargainer Jim Eagle says the message to the rank-and-file is: it's not over 'til it's over.
"Although there's a lot of things going against us," Eagle says, "we're going to continue to try. We've got our dignity, we've got our work ethic. And we're going to make that work for us."
But Ford officials are categorical. They say the door is shut on the St. Paul plant's future and their decision is final.
DFL Rep. Michael Paymar, who represents the area where the plant is located, says when he spoke with Ford officials yesterday, he also got the impression they were determined to close the plant, despite city and state efforts to convince the company to stay.
"We tried everything possible," Paymar says. "But I had discussions with officials from Ford, and basically it was just an economics issue for them. They said that they needed to reduce the amount of plants in the United States by 2010 and it just didn't make economic sense to retool the plant."
Paymar says he understands the decision, but he wishes it were different.
Dave Cole, an analyst with the Center for Automotive Research in Michigan says Ford has no choice. The company's North American operations lost $1.6 billion before taxes last year. Sales of the Ranger truck made at the Ford plant fell almost 23 percent. Cole says Ford has to close plants to survive.
"It's not nice. Nobody likes to do it, but you really have to think of the greater whole," Cole says. "And the fact is, unless Ford can get its capacity in line with its market, they are very much at risk. So, what we're talking about is basically not an optional strategy for Ford, it's absolutely necessary."
The nearly 1,800 union workers at the Twin Cities plant have a contract until September 2007. Ford says it will close the plant sometime in 2008. That means the union will have to renegotiate one last contract, including layoff benefits.
John Killeen, a union negotiator, doubts the amount of leverage the union will have. He says workers will need to be more innovative and adaptable. And maybe, he says, give up some things in the next contract in order to save Ford money.
"So that maybe one day, we can turn this company around and the people that are getting laid off and losing their jobs, can get them back," Killeen says.
Union jobs at Ford are good. Very good. The average hourly wage is $27 an hour. Union members also receive full health care benefits without having to pay monthly premiums. Workers are offered education benefits for their children and themselves. They get a pension.
Union President Rob McKenzie says Ford is one of the very last employers to provide such jobs.
"People with a high school education or a couple years of trade school or college, these kind of jobs are disappearing," McKenzie says. "So there's a real squeeze on these kind of jobs that have provided middle class lifestyles for people, and we can see it among our members. That this is going to be a very very tough thing, and I think for the whole community. This has a big ripple effect I think for the whole state."
James Audette has owned a barbershop for decades near the plant called the Handlebar. He says other businesses in the area may take a hit, but he doesn't get that many customers from Ford.
"I don't think it will be that big of an impact on our business at all," Audette says. "But on the whole, it is kind of... the gas stations, the liquor store down there... I think any time a business that big leaves the area is going to have an impact."
State officials say they're planning to cushion that impact.
Gov. Tim Pawlenty's chief of staff, David Gaither, says the state has $22 million available to provide retraining for laid-off employees, and he points out the workers have some two years' advance notice.
"They have time to be trained and to pursue other interests," Gaither says. "I'm sure Ford will be offering some type of negotiated settlement with those workers as well."
Ford officials say they will be working with the union to develop programs including retirement packages, education packages and other severance provisions.
Ford is not yet revealing its plans for the 122-acre plant, which sits along the Mississippi River in the upscale Highland Park neighborhood in St. Paul.
Local developers are reportedly chomping at the bit to build a mixed use development with retail, housing and offices. That kind of redevelopment would give a boost to the city's property tax revenues.
St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman has said his focus is on saving jobs at the Ford plant, and he's still hopeful the door might be open with Ford officials. But at a news conference Coleman said the site has potential for other industrial or even high-tech uses.
"There's opportunity for light manufacturing or some life science potential to come into that corridor to be kind of a cluster along with some of the other spots that we're working on," Coleman says. "Clearly the value for that property for housing is going to be very, very strong depending on the environmental conditions around that site."
The Ford plant is scheduled to continue making the Ranger truck until May or June 2008. Local union president Rob McKenzie says the plant could close sooner or later than that depending on how Ranger sales go. In the first three months of this year, sales of the truck were down 16 percent.
- Morning Edition, 04/14/2006, 6:45 a.m.