When There's No Ford in Your Future

By William Jeakle
Saturday, April 8, 2006

The recent announcement by Ford Motor Co. of as many as 30,000 layoffs, mostly in white-collar jobs, echoes the turbulent days of the early 1980s, when Japanese imports, endemic inefficiency and the residue of two oil crises conspired to sharply reduce the size of Ford, GM and Chrysler.

The numbers in the Ford layoff announcement were large, though small in the context of a U.S. working population of more than 100 million. But numbers can never be more than abstractions. Each layoff will set into motion some very real and painful dramas in 30,000 Ford families.

I know. My family was a part of the last major Ford layoff drama 25 years ago. In 1980 Ford announced the closure of several plants, including the aluminum engine plant in Sheffield, Ala., where my family was living. We were a Ford family, transferring every few years from plant to plant, from Michigan to California to Pennsylvania and, finally, to Sheffield. For years, life was good, with two cars, a nice house, even a membership at the modest local country club.

The layoff announcement threw our family, and the families of 1,500 other workers, into turmoil. Families went from planning vacations and seeking college educations to planning cutbacks and seeking low-paying but available work. There was some initial optimism. Lifetime union workers felt freed from the constraints of the factory and planned to start businesses of their own.

One of our family friends started a woodworking business. Another opened a factory outlet for mattresses that his brother manufactured in Memphis. The planning and dreaming helped ease the pain of losing a substantial paycheck. But the realities of a dwindling local economy soon shuttered these modest businesses. Wal-Mart arrived. Downtown withered.

Our own family, with me attending Stanford and my sister at Vanderbilt, took out student loans, applied for scholarships and sought positions that helped pay room and board. I bused tables at one residence and became a resident assistant my senior year, which defrayed my room-and-board cost. There was pressure to transfer back home to the University of Alabama, but I persuaded my parents to let me stay at Stanford if I could pay for my education myself.

My brother was a junior in high school when the layoffs hit, and he bore the brunt of the downsizing. Though the highest academic achiever in our family, easily gaining admittance to Stanford and other elite schools, he was encouraged to attend a military academy, which would cover the cost of his education, though he was a gifted writer and creator, hardly ideal material for the military.

He chose Stanford, and, with two classmates, became one of the first students to attend that university on an ROTC scholarship since the program was expelled from the campus in 1970. He attended ROTC classes weekly at Berkeley, waking at 5 a.m. for the one-hour drive across the bay, then returning for afternoon classes in engineering.

The greatest sacrifice was made by my parents. My father was a lawyer who had left day-to-day legal work to get a higher-paying job at Ford in the go-go '60s. With news of the plant closing, he made twice-weekly trips to Birmingham to take legal refresher courses, sleeping on the couch of my best friend from high school, who was attending the University of Alabama at Birmingham. My dad, in his fifties at the time, took classes with twentysomethings from wealthy suburbs. At age 53, he passed the Alabama bar exam, the oldest person in the state to do so that year.

My mother, who had left a career in a bank to be a stay-at-home mom, went back to school to get her teaching certificate, and then taught Spanish and special education in the Alabama public schools. At an age when most couples were contemplating sunny retirement, my parents soldiered on.

Our story was far from unique. The American spirit is powerful, and we saw dozens of inspiring stories from our fellow laid-off Ford families. But when you move from the statistical forest to the individual trees, you can see that each successive year was lived with more stress, fewer dreams and altered futures.

When I heard that Ford was again laying off thousands of workers, I knew what those families would be going through. I get a tear in my eye for their pluck and determination.

It's funny. Despite everything, even today, everyone in our family drives a Ford.

William Jeakle is a writer and creative director at Filmateria Studios in Seattle. His e-mail address isbill@filmateria.com

© 2006 The Washington Post Company