A good ride for St. Paul Ford plant

  • Article by: CURT BROWN, DEE DEPASS and JANET MOORE , Star Tribune staff writers
  • Updated: December 17, 2011 - 10:20 AM

Workers juggled fear and giddiness as the Ford plant in St. Paul ended an 86-year run.

Amid cheers and flashes from workers' camera phones, the last white Ford Ranger rolled off the sidewinder line Friday morning with a rose in its bed. An automatic garage door flung open and 53-year employee Dallas Theis drove the little pickup out of the Twin Cities Assembly Plant -- 86 years, seven months and 12 days after the first boxy Model T was manufactured along the Mississippi River in St. Paul.

Michael Bartlett, an assembly line trim worker from Coon Rapids, stood on the edge of the sea of hundreds of co-workers, retirees and plant supervisors in what they call 201 -- the end of the line. He understood the celebratory mood and felt relief that comes at the end of 13 years of punishing his body installing heavy electrical wire harnesses under engines.

At the same time, he felt like mourning.

"It was pretty darn surreal seeing a dark, quiet plant filled with people taking pictures and saying goodbyes," said Bartlett, 39. "We're pretty much family and you get down and bummed out because change is very hard and now we're forced to change and reset our lives."

Bartlett has gone through a recent home foreclosure and divorce. He took a 2006 buyout, giving up any future Ford transfers, but was plucked off a rehire list three weeks later -- his seniority stripped, his $28-an-hour wage shrunk by $10 an hour.

"Back in 2008 when they first announced the plant closing, there were more jobs out there than in this economy," he said. "It's very, very, very scary right now with another 800 of us hitting the unemployment line at the same time."

Nearby, Marsha Anderson-Shearen, the financial secretary-treasurer of United Auto Workers Local 879, was feeling a similar roll of emotions.

"It was hard to choke back tears," she said. "We all went from happy to sad and back on a difficult day."

Thomas Epperson, of Oakdale, started working in the Ford cafeteria 21 years ago and moved up to the trim line. The chairman of the plant's veterans committee, he painted a massive mural in the training center. As he watched the last Ranger roll out, he said: "It's like you've been preparing for a big holiday meal. Then you're done eating and now it's time to do the dishes."

The last Ranger is heading to the Orkin Pest Control fleet, according to the company's spokesman in Atlanta and Ford sources in Dearborn, Mich.

"We've had a great relationship with Ford and when we found out they were discontinuing the Ranger, we asked if we could have it and they said 'yes,'" said Sarah Robinson, adding the pickup will go into the regular service rotation but might end up in the corporate archives.

Ford introduced Rangers in 1982 to compete with small pickups from Japan. Their popularity peaked in the mid-1990s when about 300,000 Rangers and 1.2 million small pickups overall accounted for 8 percent of all U.S. vehicles sold. That number has dropped to 2 percent of the market, or fewer than 300,000 vehicles.

But the plant closing reflects some dire trends that transcend slumping small-truck sales: 60 percent of the 450 U.S. automaker-owned plants have shuttered since 1979.

And with 800 Ford jobs now gone, down from more than 2,000 at the plant's peak in the late 1970s, Minnesota has lost nearly one-quarter of its 400,000 manufacturing jobs since the late '90s.

"It's a sad day for St. Paul," Mayor Chris Coleman said at the plant gates.

A macabre Mardi Gras

Up Ford Parkway a few blocks to the east, workers packed into Tiffany's Sports Lounge, which opened three hours earlier than usual and offered drink specials and a breakfast spread to honor the end of an era. Adam Woods, 36, arrived at 8 a.m. and forsook the last Ranger ceremony going on at the plant.

"I saw 500 of them every day," he said.

Benjamin Gross, 61, came from his home in Eagan to the raucous bar with a Santa hat and a shirt festooned with fiery flames and skulls he said signified "the doom and gloom for the American working class."

"I went from a part-timer at $10 an hour with no benefits to $30 an hour with medical, dental, vision, vacation and college tuition," he said. "I put two kids through college thanks to Ford."

Theresa English, 37, said through the Tiffany's roar that her 13-year-old youngest child, Tezmond, recently asked: "Mom, if you lose your job, what happens to me?"

She told him to put his faith in family and God. She has a job interview Monday at a temporary employment agency that would pay her $10 less an hour than Ford. If she lands it, she hopes to help her displaced co-workers find jobs.

A farewell token

On the Ford Parkway sidewalk outside the plant's main gate, Katherine Werner and her sister, Karen Johnson, stood with signs proclaiming " 'FORD' EVER THANKFUL'' and "86 Years, Thank You Ford Folks." Cars honked all morning in support of the message.

Their late grandfather, Bill Priglmeier, worked at the plant for 35 years, retiring in the '70s, raising a family as a widower with no college degree, but a good paycheck and benefits from Ford. He'd bring home paint chips from the plant floor to make cuff links.

"Whether they've worked here five years or 25, it's their last day and that's sad," Werner said.

One worker stopped when he saw her, rolled down his window and handed Werner his Ford employee identification badge.

"Here," he said. "This will help you remember a really good company."

Staff writer Jennifer Bjorhus contributed to this report. curt.brown@startribune.com • 612-673-4767 dee.depass@startribune.com • 612-673-7725 janet.moore@startribune.com • 612-673-7752

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