Changing Gears: Midwestern union workers have hope for their jobs

September 21, 2011

By Niala Boodhoo

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(Changing Gears/Niala Boodhoo)
Navistar Springfield, Ohio plant manager Jim Rumpf with one of the four models of trucks now produced at the plant.

Navistar builds all kinds of trucks across North America: at non-union factories in the South and Mexico, as well as union shops in the Midwest. But the United Auto Workers at its Springfield, Ohio plant said a year of changes has made them competitive with those non-union plants. And, they said they were hopeful for the future of their jobs in the Midwest. Changing Gears' Niala Boodhood shared their story.

In the final assembly department at Navistar’s Springfield, Ohio, plant, Veronica Smith is helping her team put the finishing touches on a truck. The cab is being mounted to its frame.

Smith has been building trucks in Springfield for 17 years. She’s been laid off and brought back to work here more than a few times. But, she says this past year has given her hope for the future.

“We feel like we’re moving forward,” said Smith. “It’s a good feeling. It’s not a feeling we’ve had a lot in the past.”

A few years ago, Veronica and the other workers at this plant focused on building one truck: the Durastar. It was Navistar’s “focused factory” philosophy.

That dedicated scale concept works well when business is booming, said James Conley, a professor at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School Center for Research and Technology and Innovation.

“Scale works really well in the early life cycle of a product,” he explained. “When things mature and other competitors get in, you have to be thinking beyond scale – the dedicated scale model doesn’t work.”

Unions were also behind the dedicated scale model, thinking the exclusive producing on one model meant job security.

But the truck making business is what analysts call “extremely cyclical” – which basically means its fortune can easily depend on the larger economy.

But when the bottom fell out, the industry saw its worst year of sales since it began keeping records.

Navistar “built a strategy around that changing environment,” said David Beebe, the company’s vice president of manufacturing.

That meant solidifying a strategy of diversification that had previously started at its plant in Garland, Texas, where they build more than one type of truck at the same facility.

But the company had to convince the United Auto Workers at its Ohio plant to adopt the plan.

UAW Local 402 President Jason Barlow says the pay cuts in particular have not been easy to stomach, but it’s all been about securing work.

“We’ve had members that have been laid off for five years, and they’ve come back in with a completely different state of mind,” he said. “It’s a tough world out there and they want to build the best truck here, and the culture has changed dramatically.”

Workers accepted a pay structure that means new hires will start at $14.39 a hour and get little in way of benefits compared to more senior workers – who also make $25 an hour.

Barlow said that pay makes Ohio in some cases even cheaper than the nonunion shop in Texas. The local says they know that’s what it takes to keep these jobs in the Midwest.

“We’re definitely very vocal in spreading that message of earning our share and getting fair product,” said Todd Scott, the local’s bargaining chairman.

Retraining started in January as the factory itself was physically reconfigured. Union workers from each department volunteered to become group leaders on the retraining – and they, in turn, taught their coworkers how to build three other models.

Fast forward nine months later, and all 700 plus workers at the plant have been recalled. Production is up 25 percent over the past year – Navistar says partially because of how slow it was last year, but also because of adding the other models.

Just near the front entrance to the factory, workers are attaching batteries to engines as half-built trucks trundle along the conveyor line.

Plant manager Jim Rumpf explains how he can tell what kind of vehicle is coming down the line:

“Looking at the front end of the vehicle, you see the radiators facing us as the vehicles come down the line,” he said. “You can see just by looking at the radiator and the size of the radiator is a good indicator of the size of the truck.

The current contract guarantees that at least 50 trucks will be built each day in Springfield.

On another side of the factory, Victoria Smith is directing the final stages of the truck assembly. Airbags are being filled, last minute checks are being made. The goal is for every truck to be started up and driven off the line, she said.

“We’ve got a lot of exciting things going on here,” she said. “I’m glad to be a part of it.”

Nearby where the trucks are driven off the line, there’s a banner hanging that acknowledges the plant’s 100-year anniversary in 2002.

The current UAW contract goes for another three years – and both Navistar and the workers say they’re hopeful for a future beyond that.

Are you a union worker? Do you think these workers did what needs to happen to keep these jobs in the Midwest? Please weigh in the comments section below.