Ford Workers Hold Wake For Shuttered Assembly Plant

Wixom Assembly plant in Mich. was once largest in the world.

Hundreds of autoworkers and their families held a wake May 19 for what was once the largest car assembly plant in the world. Ford workers and their families wandered through the sprawling Wixom Assembly Plant in this Detroit suburb, listening to old Motown hits and talking about old times, retirement and new jobs with cups of soda in hand.

The mood was far different from the anger and betrayal expressed 16 months ago when Ford marked Wixom for closure as part of a massive restructuring plan which included the elimination of 26,000 jobs and the closure of 16 plants. "My feelings are positive," said line worker Sharon Gallaugher. "We've all done a fabulous job, and Ford has given us the opportunity to retire and go on to other opportunities." But the plant and the close friendships that were formed as workers spent 10 hours a day on the line together will be sorely missed, she said.

Ford broke ground for Wixom in 1955, shortly after the company went public in what was then the largest initial public offering of stock in U.S. history. Wixom was the birthplace of a succession of the company's most important cars such as the Ford Thunderbird, Lincoln Continental, Lincoln Mark IV and Lincoln Town Car.

The plant grew from 1.3 million square feet initially to 4.7 million square feet, with more than 15 miles of conveyor lines as Ford expanded the site to keep up with the demand. Employment peaked in 1973, when the plant had more than 5,468 workers on its payroll. Production topped out in 1988 when workers built 280,659 Lincoln Town Cars and Lincoln Continentals and Wixom was one of the most profitable auto plants in the world.

Ford shifted its attention from cars to sport utility vehicles in the early 1990s and production fell dramatically as demand plummeted in the wake of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Ford kept Wixom going for a few years by offering deep discounts, or incentives, to customers buying the increasingly unpopular cars Wixom built. But when high gasoline prices and the introduction of smaller, car-based SUVs ate away at demand for high-margin trucks and SUVs, Ford's balance sheet began to bleed heavily. Ford laid off Wixom's second shift in May 2006 and announced May 16 that Wixom will close permanently on May 31.

Philip Calhoun, Wixom's plant manager, said he has been impressed by the high morale of the employees as the date of final shutdown approached. The pride of the employees in their work and the plant's legacy also played a role in maintaining the spirit of the plant's 1,100 employees over the past year, Calhoun said. "We're a high-seniority plant and the people here have had a great opportunity to decide what they want to do in the next chapter of their life," he added.

The United Auto Workers union negotiated rich buyout packages for older workers, and younger workers were given a chance to transfer to jobs at other Ford plants, said Parsons, who worked at Wixom for 15 years and will move on to a job at the company's transmission plant in Livonia. "I think everybody was disappointed for the younger bunch, for the people who can't retire. But they're getting new opportunities," said Mimi Mazzara, who has worked for Ford for 31 years. The Lincoln line will be shipped to a Ford assembly plant in St. Thomas, Ontario, where it is expected to be back in operation before the end of the year. Meanwhile, the city of Wixom plans to rezone the site for a mix of housing and industrial parks.

Copyright Agence France-Presse, 2007

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