Monday, October 20, 2014
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Ford workers struggle with uncertainty

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Surrounded by family, St. Paul plant worker Tom Lawrence says he's optimistic because the plant has a strong record of productivity and quality. On the other hand, he still has doubts because the company has to ship supplies to St. Paul. (MPR Photo/Marisa Helms)
About 2,000 workers at Ford's Twin Cities Assembly Plant learn the fate of their jobs next week. Ford is announcing a new restructuring plan Monday and is expected to close several plants, possibly the one in St. Paul. Sales of the Ford Ranger, which is made at the plant, were down 23 percent last year.

St. Paul, Minn. — Ford production worker Tom Lawrence is frustrated. Recent news reports that the assembly plant in St. Paul where he works will close -- without any confirmation or denial from Ford -- have meant weeks of uncertainty.

He calls the mood at the plant "anxious."

"Everybody thinks they know someone who knows something, then starts a rumor and says something they think they actually have a fact on, which they may or may not," Lawrence says. "That's really hard because you don't know. Well if they're right should I be looking already, or if they're not... and things like that."

Lawrence has been working at the plant for the past seven years. He's a group leader responsible for installing a truck's interior components after it has been through the body and paint shops.

He works the graveyard shift, 5 p.m. to 3:30 a.m. Before heading to work one recent afternoon, Lawrence and his family gathered at his wife's workplace, an optical store in a Lakeville strip mall.

Tom and Jill Lawrence have been married 25 years. They have two adult daughters, an 18-year-old son, a foster child the same age, and a baby granddaughter.

Jill says it's hard to live with the uncertainty about her husband's job.

"Of course, you lay awake nights," Jill says. "You do wake up in the middle of the night wondering about it."

Of course, you lay awake nights. You do wake up in the middle of the night wondering about it.
- Jill Lawrence

Jill worries if Ford eliminates her husband's job, it will hurt their quality of life and their ability to help their two sons pay for college.

"That would be a consideration, do we need to downsize?," she says. "It does impact our short- and long-term goals."

The Lawrences say they are already watching their spending in case Tom loses his job. Jill says even if her husband were offered another position at a different Ford plant, she wouldn't want to move. Her aging parents live here, and the family wants to stay close together.

But Tom says he's worried about finding another job in the area that would match what he's got right now with Ford Motor Company.

"Ford's benefits have been outstanding," he says. "Education benefits with the kids going to school, and reimbursements and our own education benefits. It's been outstanding. Ford does treat their people really well, along with union-negotiated contracts."

Lawrence says he has no health insurance premiums to pay, and he and most workers at the plant earn about $55,000 a year. He realizes that his is an enviable job. But he says his purchasing power supports other people's jobs too.

"I've seen in the press where people are like, 'you're just a bunch of spoiled, overpaid autoworkers,'" he says. "And I take that as, 'No, we're one of the people that have been able to keep our benefits and negotiate that successfully.' I don't know why they have to call us names for that reason."

Lawrence will find out Monday how long his job will be available.

Whether Ford closes the Twin Cities plant, analysts say the company is under tremendous pressure to shrink, to "change or die."

Dave Cole of the Center for Automotive Research in Michigan, says Ford is operating at about 75 percent of capacity, and that is far from enough.

"You need to be essentially at 100 percent or you really can't be profitable in this business," Cole says. "And they have to make substantive changes across all of their cost structure, while at the same time developing a new and exciting product. So it's a tremendous challenge."

Surrounded by family, St. Paul plant worker Tom Lawrence says he's optimistic because the plant has a strong record of productivity and quality. On the other hand, he still has doubts because the company has to ship supplies to St. Paul.

"Being far away from Detroit actually worries me," he says. "Everybody's in Detroit, who cares about Minnesota? That is a concern."

In any case, Lawrence and the some 1,800 autoworkers employed at the plant have a contract with Ford until September 2007. If the plant shuts down before hand, the workers will receive most of their pay until then.

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