BY ED GEBERT
Times Bulletin News Writer
The news is far from unexpected.
United Steel Workers Local 1-524 president Aaron Collins received a notification letter via email from Kongsberg Automotive Van Wert plant manager Larry Alberding Friday evening stating the company's intention to relocate its remaining facility to Nuevo Laredo, Mexico beginning in January 2009. The Times Bulletin was able to confirm with an unnamed source within Kongsberg Automotive Holding early Friday afternoon that the final plan for the Van Wert facility had been set in motion. The future of the local plant was placed in question even before the company locked out 328 employees on April 2.
Early indications appear to have the tower line leaving for the Kongsberg plant in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico during the first week of January, with the last production line, the molding line, pulling out of Van Wert by the first week of June. At that point, the facility would be completely closed with the permanent layoff of all union workers.
In the letter, Alberding referenced the lack of new contracts won by the Van Wert plant in the last several years. It also stated the worsening global economy and the virtual collapse of the American domestic automobile industry over the past few months had made the thought of saving the jobs at the plant an unrealistic goal.
"I'm very disappointed," expressed County Economic Development Director Nancy Bowen. "It's not totally unexpected, but disappointing."
United Steelworkers Local 1-524 President Aaron Collins was saddened to hear the news that he thought would eventually come. "I'm not surprised that this is going to be the final outcome. It appeared that is what they wanted to do when they bought us, and then locked us out. It seems that their strategy is to take all the work they can and transfer it to a lower-paying country such as Mexico," he said.
The Norwegian company purchased the global motion systems division from Teleflex for $560 million last December. The purchase, which included the North American plants which make plastic components for the automotive industry, was finalized March 26. The labor contract with the USW expired five days later. Kongsberg made an offer to the rank and file which called for approximately 40 percent pay cuts and the loss of some benefits. The union members soundly voted down the proposal, but when the third shift workers tried to report to work, they were met with security guards ordering them off the property.
In the eight and a half months since the lockout began, efforts have been made by state and local officials to get the company to budge from their contract offer, but to no avail. "I just feel we did everything we could, but the decision to close the plant was made far above us," observed Van Wert Mayor Louie Ehmer.
Bowen added, "I think there's been a number of people working hard to come to some kind of resolution. There's been a lot of effort put into that, especially by the union. I've certainly been working on my end too to help out in any way that I can. I know everybody will be very disappointed that we weren't able to work through this, but it's not totally unexpected."
According to Collins, many of the locked out steelworkers have prepared themselves for this type of ending to the story. "I think a lot of people had already come to the conclusion that they weren't going to get their jobs back. But with all the time they had in at the factory, they were probably just hoping they would get back," he noted.
Bowen related that statements from Kongsberg representatives had been positive toward keeping the Van Wert facility open. She shared, "I was hopeful, even a few months ago, that they would keep the tower line here in Van Wert. I was hopeful they would keep it here. That's what they said they would do. Obviously that's not going to be the case."
Twice during the initial stages of the lockout, Kongsberg sent executives to Van Wert as representatives in the dispute. Kongsberg Automotive Group President of Driveline Systems Peter Spencer and Vice President of North American Operations Kevin McMahon each made trips to facility. As part of the Times Bulletin investigation, it was learned that both Spencer and McMahon are no longer with the company.
For the locked-out USW members, the end of this chapter is now in sight. Collins shared that there could be a silver lining in having the plant finally close. "I guess everybody has some kind of closure now," he said. "Now we can eventually get what we need to get our trade allowance benefits such as retraining and unemployment extensions to possibly better our lives instead of searching around for low-paying jobs."