"I'm telling these people to sell their houses and get the hell out of town," says United Auto Workers union official Arthur Kolb.
Behind Kolb, a door leads into an auditorium at the UAW local union hall where a group of auto workers is beginning to deal with a future without work. On June 20, Ford Motor Co. is closing down the Mahwah auto assembly plant, eliminating the jobs of the remaining 5,000 production workers.
A vast ribbon of cars still flows from the plant's 12 miles of assembly lines. A new car emerges every 90 seconds from the Mahwah plant, the second largest in North America.
But in the midst of the worst auto sales slump in 18 years, there are no longer enough buyers for the middle-sized Fairmont sedans made at Mahwah, and Ford can build all it needs now at two other plants in Kansas City and St. Thomas, Ontario, Canada.
The loss of the Ford plant leaves a gaping hole in Bergen County, on New Jersey's border with New York State. Along with other old, industrial centers like Detroit, Los Angeles and Dayton, it is bearing the first shocks of the recession's rising unemployment.
Here and at other industrial centers, the same meetings are repeated over and over in large, plain rooms filled with folding chairs, stale cigarette smoke and mimeographed fact sheets and unemployment benefits.
The message for some of these industrial workers is that their jobs are gone for good. They are not facing a temporary layoff while the economy rides through a recession. They are being pushed out of industries that have abruptly contracted to a smaller size, pinched by higher energy prices, foreign imports and inflation.
Key basic industries in the United States like steel, autos and tire manufacturers have been "down-sizing" themselves in the past year, closing older, higher cost plants for good, and leaving behind operations that will, be smaller, but more profitable, their executives hope.
"We're in the middle of an industrial shift of continental proportions," says Thomas Jackson, a private employment counselor whose company assists other companies in helping their employes make the transition to new jobs. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., Jones & Laughlin Steel Corp., and Sears, Roebuck & Co., are among his clients.
The wave of plant closings is hitting white and blue collar employes alike, but Jackson worries most about production workers, who have done the same tasks for years, earning good wages, and then suddenly find themselves with skills no one seems to want.
The temptation is to wait for the crisis to past, says Kolb. Auto workers, for instance, can draw on unemployment pay, supplemental union funds and federal aid for workers displaced by foreign imports. With benefits amounting to at least $269 a week, tax free, for a year, many will be tempted to stick it out until auto sales rebound, hoping that the Mahwah plant will be reopened or sold. Ford has not said whether it intends to sell the plant or put it in mothballs until auto sales recover.
It is a gamble, Kolb said, and he is urging his co-workers not to take it. His advice is to follow the southward movement of industrial jobs into the Sun Belt.
For the 675 employes at Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. plant in Conshohocken, Pa., the question isn't in doubt. The plant made bias-ply tires, which no longer have a future because of the public's demand for longer-lasting radial tires that boost an automobile's gasoline mileage.
Goodyear hired Jackson's company, Career Development Team Inc. of New York City, to help its employes take the first steps toward new careers through a series of workshops and job counseling sessions.
Jackson's initial approach is shock treatment.
"They start out saying, 'I'm just a burned-out tire builder. You can't do anything for me,' Jackson said. It's a common attitude among people who have taken for granted there would always be work for them.
"We tell them that losing their old jobs was the best thing that's happened to them. It gives them an opportunity to find something they really like to do."
Jackson wants the employes to stop thinking of themselves as "tire builders" or "hog ringers" or "body buck operators" -- the names that described their particular jobs in a tire or auto plant.
Instead, employes are given a list of general skills and qualities and asked to check off the things they do well, like "dealing with emergencies" . . . "handling hot materials" . . . "checking for quality" . . . "watching for mistakes" . . . "organizing productin materials" and "getting along well with fellow employes."
"They discover what they did involved skills and human qualities that have a value, things they never really thought about," Jackson said. At Goodyear, this process led to preparation of individual resumes, which were reprinted by the company for the employes' use.
Does it work? Goodyear officials say that in the 90 days since the Conshohocken plant closed, about 25 to 30 percent of the employes have found new jobs, and the number is still growing. Goodyear, which paid for seven of the 12 hours of couseling at a cost of $300,000, believes it could save as much as $3 million in unemployment compensation payments by assisting its employes in finding jobs.
The effort took some of the sting out of the closing, said Ed Kurek, manager of personnel administration. "I was amazed that morale held up so well to the bitter end," he said.
Although Jackson is an energetic salesman for his counseling services, he is careful with his claims of success. In the past two years, his firm worked with containing company and a major retailer with considerable success: Nearly 8 out of 10 jobless employes found new work within a few months. But those results will be harder to duplicate in the teeth of a recession, he acknowledged.
Job counseling can shorten the search for new work by half, he said, by helping employes overcome the panic and resentment of a layoff, and convincing them they have a future, even if it is somewhere they've never looked before. "Jobs exist to solve problems. There is no shortage of problems, therefore, there is no shortage of jobs," Jackson said.
For the workers from Ford's Mahwah plant, a new job is likely to mean a new home.
In addition to the 5,000 Ford workers who will be unemployed in June, another 2,000 people in the area are losing their jobs with two large chemical companies and Public Service Electric & Gas Co. A cutback in federal funding for the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act program will eliminate another 1,400-municipal jobs in the area.
Eugene Walsh, Bergen County director of economic development, said so far, only 400 new jobs have been found in the area. Moreover, most of them involve clerical pay closer to $5 an hour than the $9 auto workers have received.
What particularly upsets Kolb, the Mahwah UAW official, is the shortage of training funds to help the auto workers qualify for new careers. The federal government is willing to pay extra unemployment benefits to people who have lost their jobs because of import competition, for as long as a year. But training funds are scarce at best.
The unemployment benefits "just ease the pain," he said. "At the end of the year the auto worker still has a specialty that may not be needed."