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Ford's workers stare at an uneasy future

Employees whose plants made the cut can breathe more easily, for now. But should they take a buyout? Go back to school? Move?

By ASSOCIATED PRESS
Published September 16, 2006


MAUMEE, Ohio - Autoworkers from the overnight shift sat shoulder to shoulder Friday morning at a bar across the street from one of two plants Ford Motor Co. said it was closing, lamenting not only the loss of their jobs but the downward spiral of the American auto industry.

At the Break Room Lounge in the shadows of the stamping plant in this northwest Ohio town near Toledo, workers packed the bar and parking lot, ending their work week with news most said they expected but nonetheless dreaded.

"They've been threatening to close us for 30 years. They finally got it done," said Larry Beach, who's worked for Ford for three decades.

Just a couple of hours earlier, Ford had said it is cutting more than 10,000 additional salaried jobs, offering buyouts to all of its 75,000 U.S. hourly workers and shutting down the Maumee plant in 2008 and an engine plant in Essex, Ontario, in 2007.

Ford also announced plans to sell or close by the end of 2008 all facilities that it took back as part of a bailout of Visteon Corp., a parts supplier spinoff. Those plants include a component plant in Sandusky, Ohio, that employs 1,700 workers.

The company said the changes are needed to end financial losses and remake itself into a smaller, more competitive car company.

Ford said it would complete its cuts of about 30,000 hourly jobs by the end of the 2008, four years ahead of its previous target. Ford also said it already had cut 4,000 salaried positions in the first quarter of this year. The new cuts would reduce Ford's total North American work force by 29 percent, from about 130,000 to about 92,000 by the end of 2008.

Ford's shares slumped nearly 12 percent amid disappointment that the automaker didn't do more to address its rising health and pension costs, falling market share and intense competition from Asian manufacturers.

In Maumee and Ford cities across the nation, many workers near retirement age said they were likely to take the buyout offer, while younger workers already were mulling plans for life after Ford.

Hank Dingus, 31, of Milford, Ohio, a millwright at Ford's Sharonville Transmission Plant in suburban Cincinnati, said he can't afford to take the buyout and lose health care. He's considering going to school full time under Ford programs that would pay some tuition but mean the end of his job.

"I know going back to school may not be easy, but I have to think of what's best for my family, and the auto industry doesn't offer much security anymore," he said.

Ohio Gov. Bob Taft promised affected workers that the state would help with job training and other programs and try to find a new buyer for the Sandusky operation.

Ford said a plant that employs 2,000 people in St. Paul, Minn., would close in 2008 and drop from two shifts to one next year. Some 1,700 production workers there make the Ford Ranger light pickup truck.

Todd Wiech, 46, of Howard Lake, Minn., said he's wrestling with his options, which include the buyout, going back to school or trying to transfer to another truck plant.

He said it wouldn't be easy to walk away from 18 years with the company.

"Myself - people that were hired in 1988 - it hits us pretty hard because we've got a lot of time invested with Ford and we're getting a little older to go out looking," said Wiech, whose daughter will graduate from high school in two years.

The Maumee stamping plant, which makes bumpers, body panels and other parts for 22 Ford plants, employs about 680 people who make $25 to $30 an hour. The plant, which opened in 1974, sits on the edge of town on the other side of farm fields.

Robert Liley, 46, took a job there four years ago after a Ford plant he worked at in Edison, N.J., was closed.

"I've uprooted my family once and now I've got to do it again," Liley said.

Still, he hopes Ford will offer him a job elsewhere.

"I hope they do it - if there's somewhere to go," he said. "The auto industry is in trouble because people aren't buying American."

Maumee Mayor Tim Wagener told WTOL-TV in Toledo that the city worked hard to prevent the plant from being shuttered.

"We all hoped for the best, but we got the worst," he said. "I'm less concerned about its impact on Maumee than I am on the 700 jobs, 700 unemployed workers in two years. That concerns me. A lot of people devoted their life to Ford."

In Norfolk, Va., where Ford said an assembly plant will close in 2007, a year earlier than expected, union leader Chris Kimmons said workers suspected bad news was coming.

He said the buyout package was good, all things considered. The union must double its efforts to help workers find other jobs or get schooling to help them switch careers, he said.

"We just have to live with the deal that went down," said Kimmons. "Still, everyone would rather have a job at Ford."