Ford employees left out in the cold as plants ‘idle’

By Harry R. Weber The Associated Press

HAPEVILLE, Ga. – Mark Gilmore moved with his teenage son from Ohio to Georgia 18 months ago in a quest for more stable work at the Ford Motor Co. assembly plant outside Atlanta.

Now, he’s regretting the decision after the automaker announced yesterday it’s shutting the plant along with 13 other facilities in a major cost-cutting move.

“It’s a shame when you can give your whole life to something and then it crumbles right in front of you,” said Gilmore, 34.

Other employees at Ford plants in North America slated for closure reacted with emotions ranging from anger to disappointment to surprise. The company said 25,000 to 30,000 jobs will be lost.

“Their hopes and dreams and aspirations and secure future are gone for now,” said Ken Dearing, president of the local union that represents Ford workers at the Hazlewood, Mo., plant outside St. Louis, which also will be idled.

Besides the Georgia and Missouri plants, Ford also said it will idle Michigan’s Wixom assembly plant and Ohio’s Batavia transmission plant. Windsor Casting in Ontario will also be idled. Ford has not yet named another two assembly plants it expects to shut.

While some officials in the affected communities held out hope the plants could reopen one day because Ford said it was “idling” them over the next two years, the company gave no indication the plants would be used for any other purpose. It also said all the facilities it is shutting will cease production by 2012.

In southwest Ohio, the loss of the Batavia plant will cost 1,745 jobs and the county’s largest employer. The plant, which has been open since 1980, makes transaxles for several Ford models, including the Escape and Freestyle.

“While it will have significant fiscal impact on the county, it will hit Batavia township and the school districts even harder,” said David Spinney, a Clermont County, Ohio, administrator.

In Michigan, James Crawford said he is too young to retire and might not have enough seniority to get hired at another plant, even though he has worked at Ford for 18 years.

“This really hits me hard,” said the 39-year-old car painter, who listened to the announcement on the radio in a white Ford Probe parked across the street from the Wixom plant. “It looks like I’m starting over.”

Crawford’s sentiment echoes the uncertainty that is just beginning for most of the workers.

Those old enough will retire, but are worried about the security of their pensions.

Younger workers are hoping to land jobs at other plants, but they’re not optimistic. Ford said it will make efforts to place some workers at other facilities.

The news is especially tough in Georgia, which already was reeling from General Motors Corp.’s announcement in November that it would close its plant in Doraville, which could cut more than 3,000 jobs. The Ford plant in Hapeville has about 2,000 employees. It makes the Ford Taurus, which is being phased out this year. It is Ford’s only assembly plant in the South identified by the company for changes.

“We’re devastated,” said Danny Sparks, chairman of the local union representing Ford workers at the Hapeville plant. “This work force deserves some attention to this. They have done everything Ford has asked of them.”

As workers left the Hapeville plant yesterday in a light drizzle, they said they were upset but not surprised by the news.

Shipping clerk Wilburn Kelly, a 38-year veteran employee, said he expects to retire. But for his co-workers who haven’t reached retirement age, he said, “It will be rough.”

Police cruisers were posted at the plant gate and across the road at the union office in case of problems, but the scene was quiet at both places.

Hapeville Mayor Alan Hallman called the news “a setback for the state” and the community of 6,200 just south of Atlanta.