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N.J. plant closes after building 7 million Fords

Laid-off workers to be paid through ’07; others are retiring

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Ford workers have pictures taken at the gates to the plant in Edison, N.J., Thursday.

Ford workers have pictures taken at the gates to the plant in Edison, N.J., Thursday.

Mike Derer, Associated Press

EDISON, N.J. — Its workers built nearly 7 million cars and trucks in its 56-year history. It was the first place outside Detroit that a Lincoln was ever built.

Ed Sullivan hosted a Christmas party for the kids of its workers, and it grew to be one of central New Jersey's economic powerhouses, cranking out Mustangs, Mercurys, Rangers and other vehicles that were sold throughout the northeastern United States.

But today, Ford's Edison Assembly Plant will close for good, taking 900 jobs and a $70 million payroll with it. Many workers punched out for the last time Thursday, after the last two Ford Rangers rolled off the assembly line.

About 350 workers are retiring; they will get a $35,000 lump sum payment on top of their normal retirement. Another 150 or so are transferring to jobs at Ford plants elsewhere in the country.

The rest of the workers will be laid off. They will be paid their full salary and benefits through 2007 under the union's contract with Ford.

Clyde West is retiring after 38 1/2 years — just short of his goal of putting in 40 years at the plant.

"It's bad for a lot of people," said West, 63, of East Orange. "They have to transfer, kids got to go to different schools, families have to move."

Greeting friends at Richie's, a bar across the street from a rear entrance to the plant, West recalled his early days with Ford as a newlywed working the night shift in an era before widespread automation.

"It was tough, man," said West, who worked as a paint mixer. "Back then, we just had manpower and sweat. But we did it."

Just a few years up from the Deep South, West started at the plant for $3 an hour. "And I thought I was king of the world," he said.

At the end, he was earning $24 an hour, but he is proudest of the fully paid benefits his union preserved for workers through decades of contract negotiations.

A worker who would only give his nickname, "Bones," is transferring to a Ford plant in Ohio, taking his family with him.

"I got 15 years to go 'til retirement," he said as he plunked two tall cans of Budweiser on the take-out counter at Richie's. "I've put too much time in to just give up.

"But it's probably for the best," said Bones, his head covered in a black bandanna with a skull and crossbones painted on the front. "I can't afford to live here anymore."

Opened in 1948 and headed by the 28-year-old grandson of Henry Ford, the 1 million square-foot plant was part of Ford's major postwar expansion; it came on line along with facilities in St. Louis and Los Angeles.

"We intend to go more aggressively after business in the medium and high price fields," Henry Ford II said in a press release issued shortly before the opening. "To do this, our line of cars is being expanded and completely redesigned."

The Edison facility, known until 1980 as the Metuchen plant, played a major role in that effort. When it reached peak production a few months after opening, its 2,200 workers turned out a new Lincoln or Mercury every two minutes.

But it fell victim to a cost-cutting program two years ago. The last two trucks that came off the line Thursday morning were raffled off to workers, who were then allowed to go home. On Friday, most maintenance and management workers will work for the last time.

Richie Superak, who has owned what he terms the "Ford bar" for 18 years, will try to make up for lost business by opening a brick oven pizza restaurant next door, and hope for the best. But he wonders how many of the plant's blue-collar workers, who know little else but automaking, will fare.

"Where else are you going to get a job making the kind of money they're getting?" he asked. "Now you're lucky if you get $7 an hour, and that's without benefits. Is this what the politicians want this country to become?"