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US:Friday is end of run for hundreds of workers at St.Louis Ford plant

Friday is end of run for hundreds of workers at Ford plant

By Jim Suhr / AP Business Writer

ST. LOUIS - For many hundreds of Ford Motor Co. workers, the end of their run at a suburban St. Louis assembly plant is at hand.

Caught up in the automaker's plans to halve to one its shifts at the Hazelwood site, Friday effectively will be the last production day for about two-thirds of the affected workers, a spokesman for a task force that helped press to save the plant said Wednesday.

Task force spokesman Patrick McKeehan said roughly 900 workers would be affected; Ford put the number closer to 800.

"Although we knew it was coming, we're disappointed," McKeehan said. "We certainly empathize with individuals impacted by this."

Michigan-based Ford announced the layoff plan in September, citing declining demand for the Ford Explorer, Mercury Mountaineer and Lincoln Aviator sport utility vehicles built at the Hazelwood site.

Ford said the shift elimination would take effect Jan. 3, though Friday marks the start of the Hazelwood plant's seasonal shutdown that extends through the beginning of next year.

Given that the majority of about 600 imminently affected workers will get their routine holiday pay, their last official day will be Jan. 1, a day before they can begin collecting unemployment benefits, McKeehan said.

The remaining 300 or so workers to be affected will be laid off after Jan. 1, among other things kept on to train workers for the transition to one shift, McKeehan said.

In 2002, Ford announced plans to close the factory by the middle of the decade, among other things citing declining SUV sales. Ford said it could save money by moving production of the Hazelwood-built SUVs to the automaker's newer plant in Louisville, Ky.

But Ford reversed its decision in September 2003, agreeing as part of its contract with the United Auto Workers to keep the site open at least through 2007, though the company planned all along to eventually end the second shift and its estimated $60 million in payroll. A message was left with UAW Local 325 Wednesday.

Ford spokeswoman Anne Marie Gattari said the company was switching to one shift at the plant to bring its ability to make cars and trucks in line with demand for the vehicles. "We're working to align our capacity with the market demand, and this decision was necessitated by that," she said.

Pressing to get the factory off Ford's closure list was the task force tapped by Gov. Bob Holden, with the broad collection of politicians, civic leaders and labor chiefs offering up millions of dollars in incentives to entice Ford to stay.

To that end, McKeehan said, the St. Louis County Council on Tuesday unanimously approved a $9.6 million property tax abatement for new and existing equipment at the factory.

Originally planned for April of this year, Ford in February postponed the Hazelwood shift elimination "indefinitely" before notifying the plant in September that the second shift would be jettisoned after 2004.

"I think we were so confident in the quality of the product being made here that we hoped it'd never get to this point," McKeehan said.

The Louisville plant would be unaffected by the Hazelwood plant's staffing cutback, Ford has said.

Also this week, trade publication Automotive News _ citing an internal Ford document and unidentified vendors _ said Ford plans to end production of the Aviator in July 2005, reviving the nameplate the next year with a car-based SUV to be built in Ontario. Automotive News also said Ford expects to end production of its Ford Excursion _ the company's biggest SUV _ next year.

"There has been talk about transitioning the Aviator to a car-based platform for quite a while," McKeehan said. "The aviator was a very niche product, and it's a shame that product never caught."

My first car was a 67 Mustang Coupe, 2nd one was a 67 Cougar XR-7, 3rd one was a 66 Mustang Coupe. Why did I get rid of these cars for ? I know why, because I'm stupid, stupid, stupid.

My next Ford.....
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