The Government's long-expected recession isn't a forecast any more in this suburban community of 7,500. It's a reality.
"It's like a morgue in there. The workers are completely disillusioned," a foreman said today outside the Ford Motor Co.'s Mahwah assembly plant. Ford, in a move to stem its mounting financial losses, announced Tuesday that it would shut down the 25-year-old plant June 20, throwing more than 3,700 employes out of work.
And, like the ripples created by a pebble thrown into a pool, the effect of the shutdown will be felt beyond Mahwah, where 10 percent of the plant's union employes live.
The plant's closing "will have repercussions throughout the surrounding counties of New Jersey and New York," said Joseph P. O'hAra, president of the United Auto Workers local in Mahwah. "For every person laid off in the auto industry there is a spinoff effect on five to six other people, either directly or indirectly."
Not all officials agree with O'Hara's figures, but no one questions that the shutdown is bad news for a wide area of northern New Jersey and southern New York state.
The plant, near the New York state line, has an annual payroll of about $90 million. Nearly half its union employes live in Bergen, Passaic, and Essex counties in New Jersey, UAW officias said. The rest live in New York City, Orange and Rockland counties in New York state and outlying communities.
Mahwah Major JoAnne Makely said the impact would be felt in working-class neighborhoods in Brooklyn, in the New Jersey cities of Hoboken and Paterson and in other urban areas.
Workers and politicians united in condemning Ford for including the 177-acre Mahwah plant, which manufactured Ford Fairmonts and Mercury Zephyrs, in its drastic retrenchment program.
"We believe Mahwah was probably the worst plant they could close," said Lois Ciccinello, an aide in the UAW's regional office in Cranford, N.J. "There is not another major industrial employer within a 30- to 40-mile radius that could absorb the auto workers. Where they will go for jobs is beyond us."
Some workers' hopes rested on rumors circulating in the last month that a major foreign automaker might buy the plant. Others hope that area members of Congress might persuade Ford to reconsider its decision. But John Cameron, a Ford spokesman in New York, said the decision is final, "and as of now, we don't have any hot or immediate buyers."
Ford plans to send teams of experts to the Mahwah plant later this week to help employes find work. The company said it will try to transfer some salaried employes, but cannot say how many. Others may be offered early retirement. Given the current slump in the auto industry, however, chances that workers will find similar work elsewhere seem slim.
Ford expects to regain lost ground this fall when it introduces two front-wheel-drive subcompacts, the Ford Escourt and Mercury Lynx. Both cars will be assembled at Ford's plant in Metuchen, N.J., about 50 miles from Mahwah. While the cars are expected to be popular, it is too early to say whether Mahwah employes will be rehired at Metuchen.
"I don't think it will be easy to relocate those people," Ford's Cameron said. "The Metuchen plant is much smaller than Mahwah, and at present it only employs about 2,500 to 2,600 people."
Last month, the U.S. Labor Department certified that Mahwah Ford workers laid off after Jan. 16 will be eligible for special trade adjustment assistance, a program designed to help companies whose sales have been hurt by imports. Besides the basic cash allowance, the program also provides training for new jobs, extra benefits during the training, counseling and job placement services.
Bergen County officials say they will set up a task force to help the laid-off autoworkers find new jobs and aply for unemployment benefits, food stamps and welfare.
"We also are calling upon Bergen County businesses to help absorb this large group of newly unemployed by alerting the task force to job openings that may occur within their companies," said County Freeholder D. Bennett Mazur. "We want to do everything we can to help people find work as quickly as possible."
The plant closing announcement was toughest on older employes close to retirement. "It's a kick in the butt. I'd hate to lose those years," said Peter McClouskey, 62, of Fairview, N.J., who worked at the plant 18 years. "I never really thought it would come to this point."