Auto workers feel the pain of separation

Chicago Tribune

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — As Jerrod Pratt drove his Ford Excursion to Bonnie &Clyde’s Pizza Parlor off Dixie Highway here, he asked his teenage daughter whether she was counting down the days until he moved back home for good.

“No,” she said, still upset about her dad’s promise that he wasn’t going to be away for more than a few months — time that had stretched into more than a year.

Pratt, a Ford Motor Co. worker, has been filling in temporarily at Ford’s Chicago assembly plant while the Louisville plant is retooled.

“Are you not ready for daddy to come home?” Pratt asked again in a playful, fatherly tone he uses to tease Skilar, a 13-year-old with strawberry-blond hair and big, blue-green eyes. This time, though, he lifted his cap and raised himself in his seat so that he could look directly at her in the back seat via the rearview mirror. His eyes were red from his four-hour drive to Louisville after working an eight-hour shift assembling car doors in Chicago.

“Well, I don’t know when yet because you said this, and you said this and this,” Skilar said.

About 150 Ford workers from Louisville agreed in 2010 to transfer to Chicago’s assembly plant to hold on to jobs that pay about $28 an hour — highly prized in a sour economy. Now the workers are slated to return home by the end of the year or early 2012.

But for Pratt and many of his fellow workers, that meant many difficult family talks explaining the delays and why they couldn’t afford to walk away from what Ford was paying.

The workers learned the money came with hefty emotional trade-offs — the guilt and frustration of not being able to spend time with children, spouses, and sick and elderly relatives, as well as lifelong friends. Relationships became frayed, and there was the loneliness that comes from moving to a strange city and the loss of privacy from sharing living quarters to save money.

“These are the modern-day migrants,” said Harley Shaiken, a professor at the University of California-Berkeley who specializes in labor issues. “It reflects how hard the times are.”

In the past, laid-off members of the United Auto Workers union would end up in “job banks” where they collected pay and benefits while waiting to be recalled to work. But as the auto industry has shrunk, many of those benefits have been peeled away in recent contracts between Ford and the UAW. Frustration over Ford not restoring some benefits led this month to UAW members at several plants, including Chicago’s assembly plant, rejecting a tentative four-year agreement. The agreement was ratified anyway after more than 60 percent of workers voted for it.

Tension also exists among second-tier and entry-level Ford workers who are paid about $16 per hour, or roughly half of what workers like Pratt, hired before 2007, make. So the first tier or experienced workers are squeezed between not being able to find a comparable job that pays as well or making the difficult decision to uproot themselves from their family, which is devastating, Shaiken said.

Their decision to move, however, guarantees them jobs ahead of an estimated 17,000 people who lined up to apply for jobs at second-tier rates at the Louisville assembly plant, set to reopen with 2,900 workers.

For 34-year-old Pratt, the strain of being in Chicago mainly comes from being away from his two children and his aging father and sick grandfather, both of whom worked for Ford for more than three decades until they retired.

On a recent visit home, Pratt visited them and other relatives. His father, Jim, 59, said, “Not everybody can go to college. Some of us are just workers, labor people.”

Jerrod Pratt’s grandfather, Harry Pratt, 79, said his grandson’s situation reminds him of pulling up roots in 1955 in Tennessee and moving to Louisville for a $2-an-hour job at the then-new Ford assembly plant. He followed a job, he said, and now his grandson is following his.

Jerrod Pratt and his grandfather expressed disappointment over the givebacks the UAW made in contract talks in recent years.

“My generation created the UAW,” said the elder Pratt. “It didn’t come easy,” he said, explaining how he and fellow union workers fought for better wages, safety regulations, cost of living increases, vacation time and medical insurance. “In recent years we have lost almost everything we gained — not everything, but a lot,” he said.