Assembly line nears end

Allan Parker, 53, Auto Plant Worker

November 09, 2008|By Scott Calvert

They had known the end was coming, but suddenly it's a lot closer for Allan Parker and 250 fellow Cecil County residents who work at the Chrysler SUV plant in Newark, Del. Instead of shutting down the plant in late 2009 as scheduled, the reeling company announced last month that it will turn out the lights Dec. 17.

"A real nice Christmas present," said Parker, 53, who started at the plant 28 years ago and lives in North East. "I can't imagine the timing being any worse."

With the U.S. auto industry on its back, thousands of autoworkers across the country face losing their high-paying jobs in a grim economy.

The silver lining for the Newark plant's 940 hourly workers: They will receive better-than-average severance under their United Auto Workers contract.

But it's small consolation for employees who thought their workmanship might save the plant. Even though the once-popular SUVs they make are emblematic of the Big Three's deepening woes, Parker had hoped the plant would land production of an economy car.

"There's a lot of disbelief," Parker said of the mood at the factory, which produces the Dodge Durango and Chrysler Aspen. "People didn't want to believe it. I had hope."

Parker earns $71,000 a year as co-facilitator of a program called Total Productive Maintenance. It aims to maximize efficiency and reduce waste. He coaches the concept to everyone from the plant manager to the janitors who clean the machines.

Parker thinks he can find a TPM job in another industry, so he feels luckier than assembly line workers who make upward of $60,000 but have less transferable skills.

Even so, Parker guesses the most he might earn in a new job is $26 an hour, or $54,000 a year - a quarter below his current $34 an hour. While his two children are grown, he's the breadwinner for himself and his wife, a retired secretary.

"It's real quick to see how all the things in life you like, you ain't gonna be able to afford," he said. That dream of expanding his rancher? Forget about it. The Parkers put their entire $1,200 stimulus check in the bank and rarely go out to dinner anymore. And he has been picking up Saturday shifts where possible to boost his income.

It goes beyond money. He's sure his next job won't give him the five weeks of vacation he has amassed over the years. That enabled him to go sailing off the Florida Keys with the Boy Scout troop in North East where he is scoutmaster.

Parker is still awaiting details from the UAW on severance. He's hoping for an option called "grow in." Under it, he would get 85 percent of his pay for 20 months. Then he would hit 30 years and qualify for his pension.

Meanwhile, there are a few more SUVs to be built.

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