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Ford Auto Workers Weigh Buyout Options

By ELLEN SIMON
The Associated Press
Tuesday, December 26, 2006; 3:09 PM

DETROIT -- Scott Swiercz smoked a cigarette and drank a beer at The Final Score lounge, mulling the biggest gamble of his life. Ford Motor Co. had offered him and its 75,000 other U.S. hourly workers a choice of buyout packages.

One option: A $100,000 lump sum payment to completely sever his relationship with Ford; taking the money would mean no job and no health care. For Swiercz, 40, who has two ex-wives and pays $157.50 each week in child support for his 14-year-old son, taking the buyout would be the equivalent of a third divorce. The math just didn't work.

The cheapest health insurance he found cost $450 a month. Then there was the child support. "I don't mind paying it," he said. "I wish I could give more." That totaled $1,080 each month before he paid rent or put gas in the car.

Like all hourly workers, he had to make a decision by Nov. 27. He chose to stay on the production line at Ford's Woodhaven Stamping Plant, where he's weeks away from hitting 11 years seniority. The decision feels "100 percent" like a gamble, he said.

He's gambling that the plant will stay open. He's gambling that, if it does, enough workers will take buyouts so Ford can avoid layoffs there. He's gambling that a worker from a closing plant who has more seniority won't bump him off the job.

"A lot of people I talk to say, 'It's just like craps. It's a roll of the dice,'" he said.

For hourly workers at Ford, making a decision on the buyout offers required a combination of economic calculations and soul searching. Some 38,000 Ford workers _ roughly half of Ford's U.S. hourly work force _ said they would take one of Ford's eight buyout packages. Workers can rescind their acceptance until their last day of work. Those who do go will start leaving the company in January, the rest will be gone by September.

The workers who are staying are every bit as nervous as those starting over.

The Woodhaven plant still runs three shifts, including a midnight crew of machinists who tend to equipment that dates back to the end of World War II. Workers there got good news the Friday before Christmas, when Ford said it would be one of six plants where the company plans to invest a total of $1 billion, in exchange for $151 million in tax incentives from the state.

The buyout and the future have been the dominant topic of conversation there for six months, Swiercz said.

"You talk to 25 people a day, that's what 10 people are talking about," he said. "Not, 'How are your kids?' or 'What are you doing for Christmas?' (It's) 'You taking the buyout?'

"Everybody's worried about everything now," Swiercz said.

___

BAD TIMES

Hard times at Ford, General Motors Corp., DaimlerChrysler Corp. and their suppliers mean hard times for Michigan, where all three are headquartered and where the auto industry dominates the economy. The state is on track to lose 336,000 jobs between mid-2000 and the end of 2006, the longest stretch of job losses since the Great Depression.

Michigan was the only state to lose jobs for the last year. Its unemployment rate, 6.9 percent in November, was second only to Mississippi. University of Michigan economists expect Michigan's rate to hit 7.7 percent in 2008. The state leads the nation in the number of homes in foreclosure.

No one is untouched. Advertising agencies, high-end restaurants, stores that embroider the backs of windbreakers are all feeling the pinch.

Contracts expire between the United Auto Workers and the Big Three in 2007, and some argue union concessions are the only way the Big Three can compete with Toyota Motor Corp. and Honda Motor Co.

"Because Michigan has such a huge concentration of these unionized auto jobs, they dominate the economy," said Donald Grimes, an economist at the University of Michigan's Institute for Labor and Industrial Relations.

"The governor is trying to do a lot of good things, so are foundations, but they're small potatoes, in scale, compared to the auto industry," he said. "Nothing is going to overshadow those auto contract negotiations. ... That determines Michigan's future."

He added, "If people realized how generous the labor agreements were, I think they'd be astounded."

Auto workers, who can make $60,000 a year without overtime, and more than $100,000 with it, "know they're never going to make this kind of money again," said Denise Brooks, who has worked for 13 1/2 years at the Brownstown Ford plant. The money, for a family with only one wage earner, isn't as rich as it sounds, she said, but no auto worker starting a new career from the bottom will be able to match it.

"No matter how dirty, or greasy, or poorly they feel they've been treated, when they drive out of the plant in their brand-new Ford, they're a citizen of the world," she said. "They've got a good credit rating. They're used to buying what they want for their children and not having to worry about it."

Brooks, 50, took a package that will give her half her pay, health insurance and up to $15,000 tuition reimbursement for four years while she gets a Ph.D. in psychology.

She went to a retirement party a couple weeks ago, looked around, and started to cry. The current generation of workers, the ones with cottages up north, boats, annual hunting trips, would be the last, she realized.

"It was a retirement party for a whole way of life," she said.

___

A RICH DEAL

The UAW's critics say union work rules make it nearly impossible to fire a bad worker. A 2 1/2 hour lunch for a union worker at one of the bars near a plant wasn't unheard of. And union workers didn't pay a penny for health insurance until last year; now a family pays only $700 a year, Grimes said.

Auto workers counter that it's punishing work.

Cynthia Allison was a single mother raising a daughter, Donielle, and getting welfare before she got a job at Ford's Dearborn Truck plant. A cousin working for Ford in Illinois got her on a waiting list for a job; she waited two years to get it. Nothing had prepared her for how physically punishing it would be.

Her first day, "I kept saying, 'The money, Cindy, the money. A future for you and for Donny.' When I got off that 4 a.m. shift, each step I took, my head said, 'Boom. Boom. Boom.'"

She's stayed at Ford 12 more years. Auto plant equipment is designed to be ergonomically correct, but Allison is 5'2" and it's not ergonomically correct for her.

She comes home with bruises and has no idea how she got them. She's popped her knee, she's popped her back, she cut herself, she got hit in the head with a Mustang. She's on a first-name basis with the plant's nurse, Kathleen, who gets her through some shifts by giving her Biofreeze gel for sore muscles. Allison, 41, describes it as "the street version of Bengay."

Allison, who also raised one of her nieces, is taking the $100,000 buyout.

"I think I would be more afraid to stay than I am nervous to leave," she said.

She's planning short-term and long-term investments for her money, but she's afraid some co-workers taking the buyout are going to spend every penny and be broke by next year.

Not her. Her $27 an hour salary on its way out, she's moved from a $1,200-a month apartment in suburban Southfield to a $700 apartment in Detroit. She has no home phone, no cable, she's stopped shopping for everything but necessities, she no longer eats at restaurants and she's bartending nights.

Asked at the end of a long conversation if there's anything else she wants to say, she says, "Thank you. Thank you, Ford, for helping me raise my daughters, making it possible as a single parent. I don't want them to think I didn't appreciate the time. Without them, I couldn't have done a lot of the things I did for my daughters, or my family."

___

RUNNING THE NUMBERS

Rob Williams, a tool and die worker with 10 years at Ford, is 35, with plenty of friends who took the buyout.

One started his own real estate company. Another is starting a butcher shop, specializing in deer killed by local hunters. One changes his plan daily, from hauling boats to giving tours of Lake Michigan.

"One of my buddies took the first round _ she's lying around the couch all day, doing nothing," he said.

The buyout is a gift for workers near retirement, who can leave with pension payments and health insurance. Some friends are retiring to Arizona, some to Florida.

Like everyone else far from retirement, he now views his future like a math story problem, with too many variables to solve.

There are about 140 tool and die workers at the plant, he said, and about 40 are eligible to retire. But, in seniority, he's third from the bottom.

If his plant, Woodhaven Stamping, stays open, workers from closed plants who have more seniority are free to work at Woodhaven if they choose, "bumping" workers there. Then he'd be unemployed, with no buyout cash to cushion him. But he'd get unemployment benefits.

He looked at jobs elsewhere, put in three applications out of state and heard nothing. There were a couple places in Tennessee looking for tool and die workers, but they were Toyota suppliers and can barely bring himself to say the word "Toyota." He didn't apply.

So he's staying. A conversation with his uncle, a recently retired Ford tool and die maker who rode out the downturn in the 1980s, helped him make the decision.

"He said, 'Don't you dare.'"

© 2006 The Associated Press