Ford workers await word on fate of plant

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The impact of a possible closure of the Ford Plant in St. Paul would be tremendous, according to Bob Killeen, who works as a millwright in plant engineering. The solidly-built Killeen also serves as secretary-treasurer for Local 879 of the United Auto Workers Union.

“Every job in the Ford plant directly creates another seven jobs in parts manufacturing and shipping,” said Killeen.

“Indirectly, every job affects others in trucking and railroad shipping and the manufacture of shipping materials,” he said. “The Ford plant has a huge impact.”

Although Killeen, who has been with Ford since 1977, does not know what the future plans of the plant will be, he is optimistic that the Ford Motor Company at 966 Mississippi River Blvd. S. will not be closing.

“We don’t know our status,” he said. “A major restructuring announcement is scheduled in the latter part of January, and we’ll find out if we’ll be closing or building a new product. We really need a new product.”

Killeen said the company started building LTD sedans and F series pickup trucks but later went to Ranger production. The Ranger is a compact pickup.

“The Ranger was always a good product to build, and it sold like crazy for many, many years,” Killeen said. “If the economy was going strong, the Ranger was selling well.”

However, Killeen said the Ranger has not had a facelift for quite some time. “I’m sure that’s contributing to the declining sales right now,” he stated. He said vehicle sales have dropped off in general for Ford and GM products, while Toyota and Honda report making record profits.

“The perception is that their quality is better, and at one point that was true, but the American manufacturers have caught up,” he said.

Killeen said the plant builds 45 Rangers every hour. The workers also build Mazda B series; Ford partners with Mazda on some of its production.

Killeen said that at its peak, there were 1900 people working at the Ford plant. He said there has been some periodic idling of production over the years, but the worst was in the early 1980s and now.

“Right now our membership hourly is 1,775,” Killeen said. “There are also about 150 salaried people working at the plant.”

He said the local he belongs to was started in June 1941. Besides the Ford plant, the local represents 35 people at Ford’s distribution center in Menomonie, WI, and 75 people at Johnson’s in Hudson, WI, a company that manufactures the seats for the Ford products. Killeen said some subcontractors, truckers and railroad personnel are represented by other unions.

Killeen said the production staff works four ten-hour days in two shifts. “We aren’t bashful about our benefit packages, and the production people work pretty hard and earn some pretty good money,” he said.

“Our work force is probably the number one force in North America,” Killeen added, “and because of that, I think we’re going to get a new product to work on. Ford recognizes that they’ve got a really good work force here, and a union leadership team that’s willing to work with them on streamlining the productive process and increasing productivity.”

He said that at union membership meetings held recently, the union president returned from a trip to Detroit and tried to reassure the membership that the St. Paul plant is not on any closing list, at least not until 2009.

But regardless of the reassurance, Killeen said that there is a great deal of anxiety at the Ford plant. “You can’t walk through there without hearing it,” he said. “We are just told we are not supposed to go by the media reports.”

Killeen said the workers are bombarded with articles in the newspaper on an almost daily basis citing possible scenarios of the future with Ford.

“We try and quell as much as we can, but we don’t know a heck of a lot, either,” Killeen said. He said that for himself, he does not think much about the personal impact a plant closure could have. “I’m just not even thinking along those lines,” he said.

For Killeen, working at the Ford plant has been a way of life, even as a child, when he watched his father go off to work each day.

He said his father, Leroy Robert, worked with the company from 1949 until 1989.

“He first worked in the body shop and then for the international union,” Killeen said. “My brother John is a bargaining committeeman for the local union, and my brother Dan is an air tool technician.”

Killeen went on to say that Ford has provided a comfortable and stable living over the years.

“In 2002, we had a $130 million payroll just at this plant,” he said. He said the plant itself is probably the most technologically advanced in the state of Minnesota.

He added that the technology that has come in has provided the biggest change he has seen in his years of working at Ford. He admits that part of that technology has eliminated some jobs.

However, he said that manufacturing as a whole has suffered in the United States, starting with the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

“Expanding all these other trade agreements has decimated our industry,” he said.

Killeen said that auto making is a highly skilled trade, but that does not mean it can’t be done overseas.

“I think the plan is to get rid of manufacturing in this country, but no one wants to admit it,” he said.

Killeen said that right now, Thailand is the number one producer of light trucks for Ford.

“The only thing keeping them out of our market is the 25 per cent tariff on all Thai pickup trucks imported,” he added. “President Bush wants to lift the tariff. We hope it won’t be brought up in the 2006 session of Congress.”

Killeen said he believes that if that tariff were ever lifted, it would probably end all small pickup production in the United States.

“Unless something is done to correct the trade agreements, I see manufacturing on a decline until it doesn’t exist anymore,” he said.

Despite his concerns for the future, however, Killeen sees a strong likelihood that the local Ford plant will continue.

“There just seems to be an inclination in the public to buy things that are not American-made,” he said. “I just wish people would buy American.”

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