A toast to that job just around corner

Layoffs: Heartland town, workers share loss, but they're far from throwing in the towel.

April 06, 2001|By Jean Marbella | Jean Marbella,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

HARVARD, Ill. -- Cold beers are slammed on the bar as quickly as it takes for the door of Windy's to open and the bartender to recognize who has arrived and what his or her usual is.

In a small town like this one, they know your beer order and they know when you really need one. As the Motorola bar in town, Windy's has a lot of needy customers these days: 2,500 employees, half of Motorola's work force there, will be laid off by June, part of a wave of job cuts that has rippled through the Chicago area.

The workers in Harvard, about 75 miles northwest of Chicago near the Wisconsin border, are among 22,000 Motorola employees worldwide to be laid off by the telecommunications giant since December. But it's not just Motorola -- thousands of other workers are similarly being idled in the Chicago area, both at the bedrock companies and the once-booming but now-tarnished high-tech firms. The toll, reflecting national trends, seems to mount daily.

About 950 workers who make Neon cars at a DaimlerChrysler plant in Belvidere. Approximately 1,000 employees at Lucent Technologies, the high-speed telecom equipment maker, in Naperville and Lisle. Another 1,000 at Montgomery Ward's corporate headquarters in Chicago. About 1,700 at MarchFirst, a Chicago-based Internet consulting firm. And 1,100 at the legendary candy maker, Brach Confections.

Nationwide, companies announced 162,867 layoffs last month, almost triple the number for March of last year, according to an outplacement firm, Challenger Gray & Christmas. The layoffs are the most for any month since 1993, when the firm started tracking job cuts, and are expected to nudge upward the nation's unemployment rate, which federal officials will announce today.

Unemployment is at a record low of 4.2 percent, and that, economists say, provides a cushion for the newly laid-off. Many can expect to find new jobs because other companies are still hiring: About 600 former Wards workers, for example, have landed jobs with one-time rival Sears, which has taken over some of the bankrupt company's stores as well. In addition, consumers are back in the stores, most seemingly unaffected by the stock market downturn and the unemployment uptick.

Here in Harvard, city officials say they expect to weather the loss of half the jobs at its largest employer because few of the Motorola workers actually live or shop in the town of 7,200.

On a personal level, though, the loss of a well-paying job in an area where you have to drive a long way for one stings.

"I cried at the meeting when they told us," said Donya Bundy, 24, who commutes from her home in Beloit, Wis. "I make pretty good money here. There are no jobs in Beloit that pay as much."

Bundy more than doubled her earnings when she joined Motorola five years ago, going from $6.50 an hour at an Arby's fast-food restaurant to $15 an hour as a phone repairer at the then brand-new plant in Harvard.

Motorola's gleaming campus of glass buildings rises above the town's north end like a beacon of modern prosperity. The previous civic icon was a fiberglass cow, commemorating Harvard's long-ago past as a major milk producer.

But in January, Motorola announced it would stop manufacturing phones in Harvard, and move those jobs to Mexico as a cost-cutting measure. The Harvard plant will be converted into a distribution center and retain some engineering and marketing operations.

Harvard had fought hard against several competing cities to land the new plant. Motorola, whose headquarters are about 45 miles southeast of here in Schaumburg, Ill., regularly tops Chicago-area polls as one of the best places to work, with its attractive salaries and benefits such as on-site day care and company-financed educational programs.

Motorola's arrival was a homecoming of sorts -- Harvard is the birthplace of "the old man," Paul V. Galvin, who in 1928 founded the company that his grandson, Christopher Galvin, now runs.

As a boy, the elder Galvin used to sell popcorn to passengers at Harvard's train station -- his neatly lettered ledger of sales and loans is displayed in a glass case at Motorola in Schaumburg -- the same depot where today company buses shuttle workers between their commuter trains and the plant.

The one-time popcorn seller built a company that revolutionized communications --building some of the first car radios, equipping police with dispatching devices and World War II soldiers with walkie-talkies and broadcasting Neil Armstrong's first words from the moon.

Losing ground

But more recently, Motorola has fallen on hard times. After essentially creating the cellular phone market, it is steadily losing market share to competitors like Nokia of Finland, which in 1999 replaced Motorola as the world's largest cell phone maker.

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