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Shoulda, woulda, coulda: Some embittered Ford workers adjust to new lives

By Marisa Helms | Wednesday, Feb. 20, 2008
St. Paul’s Ford plant, scheduled to close this year, got a one-year extension — good news for the 850 union members still working there.

Ronald Jorgenson
Courtesy of Ronald Jorgenson
Ronald Jorgenson is bitter that he sought a transfer to a Ford plant in Missouri when it appeared the St. Paul plant’s closing was imminent. Now, the plant is expected to stay open until next year.

When Ronald Jorgenson wakes up at 1 each afternoon, he soaks his aching hands in an old oil pan he fills with hot water. RJ, as he likes to be called, soaks his hands again when his shift is over at 4 a.m. at the Ford assembly plant in Liberty, Mo. 

“A lot of days I can’t feel my fingers when I get up in the morning,” says Jorgenson. “My shoulders and back hurt. I’m not used to it, the faster pace.”

RJ’s hands are killing him because, at 54, he’s back on the assembly line. A Ford worker since 1989, RJ is from South St. Paul and used to have what he calls a “cushy” job in quality control at Ford Motor Co.‘s Ranger assembly plant in St. Paul’s Highland Park neighborhood. “I had the best job in the world, and then I come down here, and it’s hell to pay.”

Today, he’s putting windows in as many as 65 trucks an hour.

RJ and many others are questioning why Ford this week began offering a second round of buyouts to just about all UAW members across the nation. The combination of offers is nearly the same as last time, with a couple of tweaks in plans for employees with 30 years of service. Employees who decide to leave have until March 18 to choose a package.

The St. Paul plant was supposed to close this summer.  But last fall, because of improved Ranger sales, the company negotiated with the United Auto Workers union to keep the plant open until 2009. 

Bitter workers blame company and union

For some of the 1,500 St. Paul workers who reluctantly left last year, the extended plant life and second round of buyouts really sting. Not only could they have kept their jobs longer, they say, but they’d also have another buyout offer to take advantage of two years later. Several workers we interviewed blame both the company and the union for their situation.

RJ, for example, uprooted his life here for a job in Missouri because he says he couldn’t afford to take one of the eight buyout offers. He needed another job to survive and spent four months applying for jobs with no luck. Even a job opening at Home Depot had 200 other applicants, he says. It seemed impossible, and he says he was desperate.

“Ford said it was only a one-time shot,” says RJ, “and wouldn’t be offered again. It’s do or die. I had to make a decision. We were all scared we wouldn’t be able to get a transfer.”

RJ put in for a transfer, and he was lucky. He got it, along with 51 other St. Paul plant workers. So, last summer he sold the house he’d lived in for two decades and moved himself and his two cats into a one-story rambler in Liberty, not far from Ford’s massive SUV plant.

Though RJ says he accepts his choice, he’s also mighty bitter about the turn his life has taken.

“When Ford made the buyout offer, the St. Paul plant was supposed to close in July 2008,” says RJ. “Now they’ve extended it to July 2009.  If I had known — and that there’d be another buyout — who knows if I would have made another decision?”

According to the UAW, the most popular buyout option was the $100,000 package, which was available to all workers regardless of how long they had worked at Ford.

Buyout regret
That’s the option Tom Lawrence took. He had been a team leader at Ford for eight years. It seemed like a good option at the time, but Lawrence says it’s been a tough year since he took the buyout. “I finally landed a job with Union Pacific Railroad. I’m a road conductor.”

Lawrence, 47, lives in Lakeville with his wife. He’s got two grown daughters and a son still at home. He estimates his income has dropped $20,000 from what he made at Ford. And he’s got more expenses — higher health care costs and higher union dues. He has just about $15,000 left in savings from his buyout. The majority of funds went for his father-in-law’s funeral and making up for lost wages.

Like his former colleague RJ, who chose a transfer instead of a buyout, Lawrence is not happy with Ford or the union. 

Tom Lawrence
MinnPost photo by Marisa Helms
Ford worker Tom Lawrence opted for a buyout and now has a lower-paying job. He’s angry about the disruptions in workers’ lives.

“I get angry about the way things have happened. They disrupted so many lives and lifestyles. This has caused a lot of grief, divorces. But the company doesn’t care. You’re just a number to them.”

Lawrence says he and many others believe that somebody at Ford or the UAW must have known the plant would stay open longer than the initial 2008 closing date.

“If they would have told us we could hang on to our jobs, a lot of good people would have stayed, and at least planned better.” 

Lawrence says he and many other workers take Ford’s and the UAW’s initial “take-it-or-leave-it” push as close to “a lie.”

Ford plant situation hard on union, too
UAW Local 879 President Roger Terveen has heard these complaints before, and he insists he had no idea the plant would stay open longer after the first round of buyouts.

“I say this from the heart. The leadership for this local, we’ve always been about creating jobs, saving jobs. We’re the only plant that allowed members to come back in who took the $100,000 package or educational package. No other plants did that.”

Terveen says about 850 union members are still working at the St. Paul plant.  About 300 of them will not be eligible for the second round of buyouts. That’s because they’re either part time or “flow back,” those who came back after taking a buyout. 

Ford spokeswoman Anne Marie Gattari says the company does understand the impact the last year has had on employees.

“That’s why we worked long and hard with the UAW to come up with many choices the first time around, and at least eight options this time, too,” says Gattari. “The buyouts do take people’s lives into consideration. It was very well thought out and very generous. And many people have done quite well.”

Ford Motor Company circa 1935
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society/Photo by Norton & Peel
The St. Paul Ford assembly line, circa 1935.

Even with 34,000 workers taking buyouts last year, Ford still faces financial difficulties and intends to close more plants and is using the new buyouts to further reduce its workforce.

As to the allegation that Ford knew the plant would remain open beyond 2008, Gattari says, “The business decisions that are made, and the input for those decisions, are confidential, so that’s not a question I can answer.”

Terveen says it’s been a volatile couple of years leading his union.

“It’s a tough battle,” he says.  “Sometimes I get very frustrated. We all care about the membership and are trying to do the best for them.  I sometimes feel like I let them down because I understand people and their needs, and I can’t always take care of everybody’s needs. It’s heart-wrenching sometimes.”

Despite that concern for individuals, Terveen also chastises complainers for “crying over spilt milk.”

“I can understand why people are bitter about leaving,” says Terveen.  “But it’s the god-honest gospel truth that we can’t tell ’em what to do to make up their mind.”

Thirty and out
Back on Circle Drive in Liberty, RJ fights off his loneliness with calls back home to his friends and elderly parents. He says he’s made some friends and believes that Liberty is a lot like St. Paul, with nice people.

“I’m not a man who likes change,” says RJ.  “I had a hard enough time moving from one job to the next in the same plant. You just don’t know how strong you are till these things happen. Then you find out how much you can handle. We survive, and we adapt and change, whether we want to or not.”

RJ says he’s on a mission:  “I’m going to force Ford to give me my 30 since they made me come down here. That’s why I bought a house. I’m determined not to fail, not to go home. No matter what, I’ll muddle through it and get my 30 out of Ford.”

That means working for Ford for another 11 years. In the meantime, he dreams of retirement. He plans to come back to South St. Paul and “get a nice little house with some land.”

 “I’ve sunk all my eggs in one basket,” RJ says. “I hope Ford comes out a little stronger and better down the road, because I can’t do anything else. What else can I do at 54 years old? I’m basing my pension and entire future in hopes this company survives.”

Marisa Helms, a former award-winning metro-area reporter for Minnesota Public Radio, covers east metro issues.