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Unionized Workers Learn New Way To Compete

Worker at Springfield, Ohio Navistar plant
Worker at Springfield, Ohio Navistar plant

( plant sounds)
Veronica Smith has been building trucks in Springfield for 17 years. She's been laid off and brought back to work here more than a few times. But she says this past year has given her hope for the future.
Veronica: We feel like we're moving forward, and it's a good feeling - it's not a feeling we've had a lot in the past.
A few years ago, Veronica and the other workers at this plant focused on building one truck: the Durastar. It was Navistar's "focused factory" philosophy.
Having one plant produce one product made sense for the company when business was booming, and the union liked it because they felt having the exclusive on one model meant job security.

But the truck making business is what analysts call "extremely cyclical" - which basically means its fortune can easily depend on the larger economy. So when the bottom fell out,

David: "It was the worst market ever."

That's David Beebe - he's Navistar's Manufacturing Vice President. We spoke at the company's headquarters in the west Chicago suburb Warrenville. He's talking about the market specifically for trucks. Industry sales volume has declined 40 percent from five years ago.

David: So we built a strategy around that changing environment.

Navistar's Texas plant had already been building more than one type of truck at that facility. The company says the recession solidified that flexible strategy of making more one truck in the same place.
But it had to convince the United Auto Workers at its Ohio plant to adopt the plan.

UAW Local 402 President Jason Barlow says the pay cuts in particular have not been easy to stomach, but it's all been about securing work.

Jason: We've had members that have been laid off for five years, and they've come back in with a completely different state of mind. It's a tough world out there and they want to build the best truck here, and the culture has changed dramatically.
Workers accepted a pay structure that means new hires will start at $14.39 a hour and get little in way of benefits compared to more senior workers - who also make $25 an hour.
That pay makes Ohio in some cases even cheaper than the nonunion shop in Texas. The local says they know that's what it takes to keep these jobs in the Midwest.

Todd Scott is the UAW Local Bargaining chairman.
Todd: We're definitely very vocal in spreading that message of earning our share and getting fair product.

(plant sound again)

Retraining started in January as the factory itself was physically reconfigured. Union workers from each department volunteered to become group leaders on the retraining - and they, in turn, taught their coworkers how to build three other models.
Fast forward nine months later, and all 700 plus workers at the plant have been recalled. Production is up 25 percent over the past year - Navistar says partially because of how slow it was last year, but also because of adding the other models.

(Battery sounds)

In this part of the factory, workers are attaching batteries to engines as half-built trucks trundle along the conveyor line. Plant manager Jim Rumpf is showing me how he can tell what kind of vehicle is coming down the line.

Jim: We're looking at the front end of the vehicle so you see the radiators kind of facing us as the vehicles come down the line, and you can see just by looking at the radiator and the size of the radiator is a good indicator of the size of the truck.

The current contract guarantees that at least 50 trucks will be built each day in Springfield. Victoria Smith is explaining the last steps:

Veronica: This is final assembly department 54. This is where everything comes together...by the time it gets to the end down there, they'll start it up.
That's Veronica Smith again - who says she's excited they finally have new product in the plant - which she now equates with job security.

For Changing Gears, I'm Niala Boodhoo.

Rick Jackson is a senior host and producer at Ideastream Public Media. He hosts the "Sound of Ideas" on WKSU and "NewsDepth" on WVIZ.