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US:Wayne plant retooling saves 3,500 Ford jobs

Robin Buckson / The Detroit News

The Michigan Truck Plant builds the high-profit Ford Expedition and Lincoln Navigator large sport utility vehicles. Ford has committed to making 75 percent of its plants flexible by 2011.

Wayne plant retooling saves 3,500 Ford jobs

The truck factory gets a $300 million face-lift so it can build various vehicles on the same production line.

By Eric Mayne / The Detroit News

WAYNE -- Ford Motor Co. is investing $300 million to expand its massive Michigan Truck assembly plant in Wayne, a move that will preserve 3,500 high-paying jobs, the automaker is expected to announce today.

Ford is retooling the plant's body shop to make it flexible enough to build several models on the same production line, according to company and union officials. The plant now builds the high-profit Ford Expedition and Lincoln Navigator sport-utility vehicles. Ford has committed to making 75 percent of its plants flexible by 2011 to match the efficiency of Toyota Motor Co.p. and Honda Motor Co.

The Michigan Truck investment comes after a battle between workers and plant management over work rules. Plant workers twice voted down a proposed labor agreement before ratifying a deal last month.

"We'll be working 10 hours a day, five days a week and every other Saturday," predicted Karl Kliemman, a 37-year-old Dearborn Heights resident who has worked at Michigan Truck for 11 years.

Ford will expand Michigan Truck by 220,000 square feet to accommodate the new body shop, where workers will build redesigned versions of the Ford Expedition and Lincoln Navigator beginning in 2007. Ford could also build stretched versions of both SUVs and even pickups on the new line if necessary.

To the United Auto Workers union, which represents Michigan Truck's 3,100 hourly employees, the investment means job security.

"With a flexible body shop, you can build anything," said Jeff Washington, president of Local 900 in Wayne.

The plant's remaining 400 workers are salaried employees.

Rumors about Ford's plans for Michigan Truck have been buzzing through the plant and on Internet chat boards for months, especially as workers voted down the plant's labor agreement. Some workers have been worried Ford would eliminate a shift at the plant.

Ford's investment also benefits Wayne and surrounding communities. For each job at Michigan Truck and the adjacent Wayne Assembly plant, where 2,100 workers build the Ford Focus small sedan, another three jobs are supported in the local economy, according to a University of Michigan study.

The study was completed in response to Ford's application for a state business tax credit. The automaker sought the tax credit, worth nearly $50 million over 20 years, in return for its investment at Michigan Truck and a previously announced $240 million infusion at Wayne Assembly to accommodate production of Focus hatchbacks.

Wayne will begin building three-door and five-door hatchbacks next year when the models' current home, Hermosillo, Mexico, is retooled to build the 2006 Ford Fusion, Mercury Milan and Lincoln Zephyr midsize sedans.

Peter McInerney, community development director for the City of Wayne, said holding on to the jobs at Michigan Truck is critical.

"We are thrilled," McInerney said. "No jobs were added because of this project. That was known going in. So the whole discussion was retention."

Wayne and surrounding municipalities chipped in with a 12-year tax abatement worth nearly $40 million.

"We need to be competitive with other communities just as Ford needs to be with other manufacturers," McInerney said.

The Michigan Truck expansion is part of Ford's overall effort to build more vehicles on fewer basic platforms.

"You derive enormous benefits in economies of scale, common engineering, sharing of powertrains," Phil Martens, group vice president of North America product creation, said last month.

Ford is spending hundreds of millions of dollars to develop its next full-size SUV architecture -- known internally as T1. The T1 platform allows Ford to build SUVs with independent rear suspension for a better ride and handling, and pickups with solid rear axles for durability. In the past, Ford had to use two separate platforms to achieve the same goal.

"Where can we share and communize architectures and major component systems? T1 is a result of that and there's more to come," said Nick Scheele, Ford president.

Manufacturing experts said Ford is taking the correct approach.

"Ford's strategy is right on," said Ross Robson, executive director of the Shingo Prize, awarded annually to mark manufacturing excellence. "The big benefit is common engineering per the platform and flexibility, whereby, if the customer demand is high for SUVs and low for light trucks, the company can adjust production to meet customer demand.

"Nissan is building five different vehicles," Robson said of the automaker's plant in Canton, Miss. "Being able to assemble multiple vehicles on one assembly line is essential to respond to fluctuation in customer demand. Price of oil recently demonstrated shifting customer demand."

Through the first 11 months of this year, a period that saw crude oil prices hit a 21-year high, large SUV sales were on pace to fall short of 2003's full-year mark of 881,000 deliveries, which was down from 2001's all-time high of 917,283, according to Compared to the first 11 months of 2003, Expedition and Navigator 2004 sales are down 11 percent and 4 percent, respectively.

But workers remain confident, their hopes especially buoyed by the prospect of building stretch versions of the Expedition and Navigator.

Production of the like-size Ford Excursion ends next year, leaving General Motors Corp. alone at the top of this subset with products such as the Cadillac Escalade EXT and Chevrolet Suburban.

"They really believe SUVs are still going to be hot," said Keith Williams, a 49-year-old Romulus resident who has logged 26 years with Ford. "This is real good news."

In the late 1990s, Michigan Truck was the most profitable auto plant in America and Ford did not risk labor strife by imposing new work rules.

In the last year, though, Ford began pushing for more latitude in assigning workers to jobs.

After workers twice rejected local contracts, Ford agreed to consider seniority when making work assignments. In return, the union allowed Ford to reduce the number of job classifications in the plant.

Michigan Truck, the largest of Ford's five Michigan assembly sites, is the eighth plant to be retooled with flexible manufacturing capability. If the number of Ford assembly plants remains at 18 through the end of the decade, Ford's promise portends investments at five other plants.

Retooling efforts at Michigan Truck are expected to ramp up after Friday when the plant shuts down for three weeks. And nobody appreciates the urgency more than Hani Delly, manager of Mitch's Party Store, across Michigan Avenue from the two Wayne plants.

Whether buying fresh-from-the-oven pizza, soda, or lottery tickets, Ford workers account for 70 percent of Delly's business. "When they're not working, we lose a lot," he said.

"We'll be working 10 hours a day, five days a week and every other Saturday."

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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