Counting down to final shift at St. Paul Ford plant

  • Article by: DEE DEPASS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 15, 2011 - 5:22 PM

Workers put years into the Ford plant in St. Paul. Now they face the challenges of relocating to stay with Ford, or finding other work.

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Retired members of UAW Local 879 attended a membership meeting last month at the Ray Busch Union Hall across from the Ford plant in St. Paul. After the meeting, former UAW local President Roger Terveen and Norbert Asfeld, left, hashed over the topics discussed.

Photo: Jeff Wheeler, Star Tribune

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Judy Johnson plunked two slabs of steel on a mold and stood back so robots could strike.

One crouched like a dog. The other lunged like a dinosaur, as fingers poked and welded with a fussy flurry of sparks and smoke.

It's a job she's done countless times, putting together the roof of a Ranger truck. But this week, the robots go quiet. And the workers move on to new lives outside Ford's St. Paul plant.

"I didn't believe the plant was going to close," Johnson said. "They have been talking about closing that plant ever since the day I started."

Once they finish the last Ranger, likely sometime Friday, disruptive changes await the 800 remaining workers.

Many, like Johnson, are eligible for Ford jobs elsewhere, if they're willing to uproot themselves to a distant state. She turns in her work coveralls Friday, after 23 years, and leaves with the movers the next day for Kentucky.

For others, a difficult job search is next. Job counselors and state dislocated worker reps have been in the plant for months to coach affected workers toward new careers, retraining, school or at least some type of plan.

But the timing is tough, with more than 193,000 Minnesotans currently out of work.

"A lot of folks down at the plant are going to have a rude awakening," said Roger Terveen, a former president of UAW Local 879 who retired in 2009 after 30 years at Ford. "The unemployment rate in Minnesota is so darn high, and there are no jobs around here."

Terveen said he always put money away while he was working, but losing the Ford paycheck was still a shock. Today he works part-time jobs in machine repair and lawn maintenance.

They pay half his old income, combined.

"It's tough," he said. "I think a lot about the people down at the plant, and I worry about them."

Only a third of the remaining 800 workers are guaranteed jobs at other Ford plants. Another third are on a transfer waiting list. The rest gave up the right to transfer when they took buyouts in the past.

Jason Hagerson, who has installed brakes on the Ranger line since 1999, is one of them.

When Ford offered buyout packages in 2006, Hagerson took the $100,000 option and immediately returned to his $28-an-hour job installing brakes. He paid off his Expedition, went to night school to study screen writing and waited for an official termination date.

"I wanted to stay here as long as possible," Hagerson said. "Now I'm nervous but excited. The [news] of this place closing was the kick in my pants I needed to move forward."

Mitchell Frazier, 46, also took the $100,000 package in 2006. He worked at the plant for 11 years as an employee assistance coordinator.

The buyout let him keep his job and wages, but he forfeited some health insurance along with the right to file for unemployment for 24 months,

It was the best deal at the time, but hurt long term. Ford had so many weekly furloughs in 2006 and 2007 that he fell behind on his mortgage. Now there isn't much of the money left.

He has enough to pay bills for three months. If a new job doesn't materialize soon, he'll go without health insurance and pick up stage lighting jobs in theaters and schools.

"We would have come out far better if we had not taken the buyout." By taking the buyout, he said, "we gave up our future."

Kentucky-bound

Paul Shropa is tagging along with his wife, Alice, when she transfers to Ford's plant in Louisville, Ky.

He worked at the St. Paul assembly plant for five years before becoming president of UAW Local 879 in July, She worked on Rangers for 17 years and has seniority, he said.

For him, there's no guarantee.

"I will go down with her, and I will apply and go through all the testing again," he said. "Which is kind of silly. I have worked here for five years. Still, that is all Ford is giving us."

Some Ford workers are determined to create their own jobs.

Union rep Johnnie Rudolph can't wait to launch a catering business, featuring barbecued chicken and ribs. He's gotten some training through the Neighborhood Development Corp. in St. Paul, and he'll eventually sign up for state dislocated worker services to get more training.

"I've been cooking for people forever, and I make my own barbecue sauce," he said. "Now this is the chance to set up [a full business]."

Loss of control

Anthony Alongi, who runs Minnesota's Dislocated Worker Program, said many of the workers are traumatized.

They had no control over the auto crisis, the recession, Ford's endless furloughs or its decision to close. "The economy is bad," he said. "What can you do to change the economy? Darn little."

But Alongi insists the men and women who spent decades building trucks at the factory on the bluffs of St. Paul will find work.

"They will transfer or retire or find the next thing, with or without government help," he said. "What we are here to do is help them approach their next career with a little more deliberation."

Still, former safety manager Debbie Francis worries. In recent days she dodged forkflits and scooted past half-built Rangers so she could hug and trash talk old friends with whom she built motors for 23 of her 31 years at the company.

At 59, Francis is happy to semi-retire and work part-time. But Ford's union wages of $28 an hour are hard to find elsewhere.

Francis, who was one of the first women in the plant, recently applied for a job at Target. The pay was $7.75.

"That's what I made back in 1979," she said. "It's kind of sad. The whole opportunity for you to have a good-paying job is not there anymore ... I mourn that plant."

Dee DePass • 612-673-7725

A MOVING HISTORY

For video on the plant's legacy and other coverage, see www.startribune. com/fordplant

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