Many Labor Workers Wary of Future with Ford

Ford's union workers are faced with the choice of leaving the company with a buyout or hanging on in a newly precarious industry. Even if many decide to stay on, Ford's restructuring will diminish the clout of the once-mighty United Auto Workers.

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Tens of thousands of Ford workers now face a tough decision. Do they try to hang onto high paying jobs in a risky industry or do they leave and if they're not ready to retire try to find a new career? As for the United Auto Workers, the buyouts are another blow to a once mighty union.

NPR's Frank Langfitt reports.

FRANK LANGFITT: Ford workers knew the buyouts were in the works, but some said it still stung to have their own company offer them money to walk away.

Jim Loomis works at the Ford stamping plant in Maumee, Ohio, which is scheduled to close.

Mr. JIM LOOMIS (Worker, Ford Plant, Ohio): You kind of got a feeling it's coming but it's a shock. It's a hurt. We've done everything that was necessary for us to take and be competitive.

LANGFITT: Whether workers take the buyout depends on where they are in their careers and their lives. Those close to retirement may decide to take the money, figuring the next offer may not be as generous. Younger workers may leave as well and try to develop new skills while giving up the best paying industrial job in the country.

But middle-aged workers with roots in the community and tuitions to pay may decide they can't afford to leave. Geraldine Riffe(ph) has three family members at the plant. Detroit Public Radio reporter Celeste Headley spoke with her today.

Ms. GERALDINE RIFFE: My son, Robin. He's got 30 years in. And my son in law's got 31. And my grandson has got one year. My son in law, I think he's going to retire. He's over 62.

CELESTE HEADLEY: What about your grandson who's only been there -

Ms. RIFFE: Well, I know. Ain't nothing I can do about it. I feel sad for him because he's got four kids.

LANGFITT: Gary Chaison says conditions are so dire at Ford, he expects many employees will head for the exits, just as 34,000 GM workers did earlier this year. Chaison teaches Industrial Relations at Clark University in Massachusetts.

Mr. GARY CHAISON (Clark University): I think that they'll get probably $30,000 or $40,000. I think that workers, after seeing what happened at General Motors and seeing the credibility of Ford's problem, are going to go for it in large numbers, particularly when there are more threats of plant closures.

LANGFITT: For the United Autoworkers, the Ford buyout is another reminder of how much power the union has lost since Detroit's glory days. At its height in 1979, the UAW had a million and a half members and negotiated rich contracts that lifted blue collar workers into the middle class. Today the Union has about 600,000 members. Gary Chaison describes the UAW's slide.

Mr. CHAISON: The union was once the most militant, one of the most innovative, one of the most influential in the country and now it's essentially a shell of what it used to be. It's lost more than half of its members and it's finding itself in negotiations trying to protect past gains instead of making new gains.

LANGFITT: Some factors behind the UAW's decline were beyond its control, like high gas prices and low cost foreign workers. But analysts say the union failed to adapt to a changed labor market. Foreign companies like Toyota, Honda and Nissan have opened plants in the South. The UAW hasn't unionized one of them.

And for all the talk of worker efficiency, one analyst says the union should have been more flexible to help U.S. companies compete with foreign manufacturers. Steven Sackaley(ph) works at the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor.

Mr. STEVEN SACKALEY (Center for Automotive Research): It's just a culmination of decades of this intransigence and unwillingness to become a more productive and more engaging unionized workforce. It was very easy during the ‘90s to ignore the situation, to ignore what was happening because the light truck market was very profitable. But those would have been the times to make the changes.

LANGFITT: Today UAW President Ron Gettelfinger responded to the buyouts with this statement. Quote, “Our members are stepping up to make hard choices under difficult circumstances. Now it's Ford Motor Company's responsibility to lead this company in a positive direction.”

Frank Langfitt, NPR News.

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