Hopes dashed, Ford plant workers vow to press on


Hope of maintaining 1,800 good-paying jobs at the St. Paul Ford Ranger plant were dashed Thursday when the company announced the facility will be closed as part of its national restructuring plan. But members of United Auto Workers Local 879 vowed to continue efforts to keep the facility open in some form.

“I’m real hard-headed and I know my membership is, too,” said Jim Eagle, chairman of Local 879. “We don’t think it’s going to be over until it’s over.”

Ford announced Thursday morning that the Twin Cities Assembly Plant in St. Paul and the Norfolk Assembly Plant in Virginia will be idled in 2008 “as part of the company’s Way Forward plan to restore North American automotive operations to profitability.”

Ford said in January that it cease manufacturing operations at 14 plants, including seven assembly plants. In addition to Norfolk and Twin Cities, the plants announced to date include Wixom (Mich.) Assembly, St. Louis Assembly, Atlanta Assembly, Windsor (Ontario) Casting and Batavia (Ohio) Transmission.

“A decision to end production at a plant is not an easy one and I’m deeply mindful of the impact this decision has on Ford employees, families and communities,” said Mark Fields, Ford Motor Company executive vice president. “Unfortunately, these are necessary steps we must take to move the business forward.”

Workers in St. Paul learned of the shutdown early Thursday morning and the news quickly spread, said Local 879 President Rob McKenzie.

“We’ve been really optimistic about our chances (of staying open) up until the last few days,” he said. “We were actually caught by surprise.”

The Twin Cities plant is the most productive and its workers have embraced flexible and innovative ways of performing their work, McKenzie and Eagle said.

“Our workforce is the best at Ford Motor Company – perhaps the best in the United States,” McKenzie said. The company employs 1,750 workers represented by the UAW and about 135 salaried workers.

Early this year, the union put forward a proposal to retool the plant to produce a “green vehicle” – a high-mileage, environmentally friendly car.

Lynn Hinkle, a health and safety committee member who helped develop the proposal, had a chance to talk briefly about the plan with company Chairman Bill Ford at a national meeting two weeks ago.

“He said he had looked at it,” Hinkle said. “I thought he had a chance to make a statement with this plant . . . and maybe it can still happen.”

Union leaders expect the shutdown to occur in April or May of 2008, when the final group of Ford Rangers rolls off the assembly line. The closing could occur sooner or later if Ranger sales plummet or surge, McKenzie said.

Ranger sales have been declining for more than five years. The Ranger, long the top-selling compact pickup, was passed in 2005 by the Toyota Tacoma and Chevrolet Colorado. Poor sales have resulted in the plant being shut down an average of once every five weeks in the past year-and-a-half.

Opportunities for the workers who will lose their jobs would include the possibility of “bumping” into a position at another Ford facility, but with 30,000 layoffs happening under the company’s restructuring plan, it’s not likely many will have that chance.

Mayor Chris Coleman called the announcement “a sad day for the city of St. Paul.” He said the shutdown will affect the entire community and that his office will work to find other uses for the facility when Ford leaves.

For every person working at the plant, another seven or eight people have jobs related to the facility’s production – from railroad workers who ship the trucks to employees of equipment suppliers and retail businesses.

The St. Paul plant opened in 1925; its employees joined the United Auto Workers in 1941 when Ford became the last U.S. automaker to be organized.

For workers like Bob Killeen, Jr., the closing will affect his entire family. His father, Bob Killeen, Sr., started at the plant in 1949. His first job was installing door handles on cars. In the years since, many members of Bob Jr.’s family have been employed by Ford, including an uncle, three brothers, a sister, his wife and numerous cousins.

“It will be very tough to see it go,” he said.