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Former Ford employees testify to life after an auto plant closes

Rich Thyer (left) gets help from instructor Larry Sisson at Ranken Technical College on Finney Avenue in St. Louis
Provided by Rich Thyer | Beacon archives

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: July 16, 2008 - Chad Risenhoover has some simple advice for the 2,400 autoworkers facing layoffs at Chrysler's sprawling assembly plants in Fenton: "Life isn't over; the sun will still rise tomorrow.

"Sure, you may have to sell some of your toys; sure, you may have to downsize. But there is life after Chrysler, after Ford, even after Chevy."

Risenhoover's words come straight from the heart, and from experience. The 30-year-old father of two was on top of the world, making more money than he ever imagined, when Ford first announced in January 2002 that it would be gradually shutting down its Hazelwood manufacturing plant, ultimately putting about 2,600 men and women out of work.

Almost overnight, Risenhoover had been shaken out of his comfortable American dream and into a cold, harsh reality. A job that had seemed like a lifetime guarantee suddenly had become quicksand. And it would take everything he had to keep from sinking into the muck.

Risenhoover's story - a story first of his move from St. Louis and eventually his move out of the automaking business altogether -- is just one of hundreds that offer a road map for Chrysler workers who, themselves, will be making tough, life-altering decisions in coming months.

Here are a few of those stories:

Chad's Story

Risenhoover landed his first real job as a "stacker" ("I stacked product on pallets") at the Monterey Mushroom plant in his hometown of Bonne Terre. He worked there through high school and for two years after, until taking a job in a steel fabricating shop in Berkeley.

He was just 21 when he was hired on at Ford. He still remembers his first day: April 12, 1999.

"My uncle was a shop steward, and he just put my name on a list. And they called me."

In the five years that followed, he would do assembly line work on the Ford Explorer, the Mercury Mountaineer and the Lincoln Aviator. The days could be long, but it was "good money.

"Very good money."

Eventually, he married and started a family. "I had a house, new cars, credit cards.

"My kids got pretty much anything they needed."

Risenhoover said when Ford announced the pending plant closure, he was left with limited options. Some of his coworkers opted for a program called the Guaranteed Employment Number program, or GEN Pool for short. Under GEN Pool, which was financed by Ford and government insurance, former Ford workers who opted not to take a buyout or transfer to another Ford plant would do community volunteer work in exchange for most of their regular pay.

"A lot of the guys I knew who took that just sat in a room for eight hours a day," Risenhoover said.

Instead, Risenhoover agreed to a transfer: from Hazelwood, to Ford's Automotive Alliance International plant in Flat Rock, Mich.

"They were building Mustangs there and I thought, 'people are always going to buy Mustangs.'

"I wanted the job security; I was in it for the long haul."

But Risenhoover did not count on the pull of his family and his roots.

When he left Bonne Terre, he was newly divorced and left behind his two young children.

Although he visited them as often as he could, the strain of separation quickly became too difficult. He stayed at Flat Rock for two years, just long enough to claim the final payment of a transfer bonus, and then returned to Bonne Terre.

Both he and his new wife left Michigan for good, both without jobs or even good prospects for work.

"We were just talking one day and decided we were both starting to get very unhappy and decided 'what's the point,'" he said. "So we left.

"We decided to roll the dice, and start completely over."

Risenhoover quickly landed a series of jobs - first at a factory that made aluminum foil and then at a machine shop in nearby Peveley. Just recently, he began working as an apprentice in the boilermakers' program at Boilermakers' Local 27 in St. Louis.

"I'm making great money; it's wonderful," he said.

He is seeing his children more. "I just got back from a Little League game," he said during an interview earlier this week.

Despite his recent good fortune, though, Risenhoover said he was forced to file bankruptcy earlier in the year.

"Honestly," he said, "I haven't really thought about Ford for a long time. It's the way the industry has been going for a long time. ... going down.

"Those people at Chrysler need to know that it will work out, that they will still wake up tomorrow.

"That was the same advice I got when I left Hazelwood."

Jennifer's Story

Jennifer Rutter-Harris was just 18 years old when Ford came calling, with its offer of a fat paycheck, great benefits and - at least she thought -- a life without worry.

Now 30, she had always intended to become a nurse, she said, but the pull of the giant automaker was just too strong. Besides, she convinced herself, she could always go to school later.

"I guess I kinda got sucked in," she said.

Like Risenhoover, Rutter-Harris worked on the assembly line, and spent the next five years building the Ford Aerostar, the Explorer, the Aviator and the Mountaineer.

"I was making a lot of money. The first five or six years, I worked 10 hours and sometimes on Saturdays.

"I had a new car, a new house and, well, I'm a girl, and I like to shop.

"I was making the money, and I was spending it."

Still, she said, the job was not fulfilling.

"It was boring, mundane," she said. Sometimes as she worked, she flashed back to her girlhood dream of one day becoming a nurse.

"I knew," she said, "that factory work was not what I wanted to do for the rest of my life."

Still, there was always the money. And it was becoming increasingly difficult to simply walk away from.

In the end, Rutter-Harris didn't have to walk away from Ford at all. The company walked away from her -- at least her hometown factory did.

When Ford announced the closing of its Hazelwood plant, Rutter-Harris' options were better than Risenhoover's had been. In addition to a transfer or GEN Pool program, she was offered a $100,000 one-time buyout from the company, or a plan that would pay half her salary and schooling for up to four years.

Finally, here was her chance to get into nursing school -- paid tuition and half of her old salary to boot.

Instead, she made the same decision Risenhoover had. She transferred to another Ford plant -- this one in Chicago.

"I met the man who would become my husband here in St. Louis and he was transferring to Chicago. So, it seemed the right thing to do at the time."

She began her new job in Chicago in October 2004. She was there just two years when another Ford buyout offer was placed in front of her.

This time, she chose her long-time dream.

"I'm going back to school," said Rutter-Harris, married now with a young child. "I'll be out in three years -- 2011.

"It was a good decision to transfer and this is a good decision," she said. "Maybe it would have been easier had I done it when I first got out of high school, but I feel I am more focused now, more prepared."

Her advice to Chrysler workers: Go back to school; get retrained.

"The money runs out fast."

Rich's Story

Rich Thyer's ties to the Hazelwood Ford plant go back to the earliest days of the factory. His grandfather delivered some of the plant's first cars as they rolled off the assembly line in 1948.

Thyer, 32, of Bunker Hill, Ill., says he started work himself at the plant in May 1996. His last day was in January 2007.

"In 1996, Ford was making more money than they knew what to do with," Thyer said. "Still, there was talk even then that they were going to close the plant. You never knew what to believe. We all hoped it wouldn't happen."

Thyer said he left a position as a ramp worker for Trans World Airlines to take the job at Ford, which consisted largely of work as a "utility" or "relief" man at the plant. He spent his final year there as a union representative.

"I don't have a bad word to say about them," he said of the company where he spent much of his working life. "They treated us very well."

The days at Ford were heady ones for a young man who didn't even have a college degree.

"I was hoping," he said, "that it would last forever."

During those years, he said, he rarely worried about money. "If I saw something I wanted to buy, I'd buy it," he said.

"I have a pretty expensive golf hobby. I'd go out every year and buy a new set of $1,500 golf clubs. I'm a hunter; and I was always buying new bows, new guns. I used to buy a new vehicle about every 18 months. My wife and I, we took some nice vacations."

When the Hazelwood bubble burst, everything changed.

Thyer's wife, who had been raising the couple's children from home, had to take a job. Much of the extra spending stopped.

He continued to golf, but began to play less often and at less expensive courses.

Offered several options, Thyer chose to follow one of his younger brothers to Ranken Technical College, where he is studying electrical system design. He is just finishing his two-year associate's degree and hopes to get his four-year bachelor's degree in another two years.

The decision to go to Ranken for retraining was an easy one.

"I could have taken a transfer with the company," he said. "But I worried about the future of Ford and I thought I had better get an education.

"I had friends who took the $100,000 buyout," he said. "Most of them were broke in six months. Now, a lot of them are working jobs that just don't pay very much. They don't have much in the way of skills."

Under the Ford offer, Thyer's tuition is paid. In addition, he receives health insurance and half of his former Ford salary -- as long as he stays in school for the four years.

"I didn't know much about electricity when I came here," he said. "I knew you flipped a switch and a light came on. That was about all. But you can pick it up pretty fast."

It has been a struggle, he said, but he is convinced that, in 10 years, he will be better financially than he would have been had he been able to stay with Ford.

"It is hard going back to school, after this long. . ."

He said he hopes to be able to counsel Chrysler workers over the next few months, possibly representing Ranken.

It's his chance, he said, to use what he has learned in business and in life.

"I've been through it," he said of his move from a major St. Louis auto plant. "But you can't just take it for granted that everything will work out OK. There is a lot you can do, that you need to do, to help yourself."