By Sally Voth
United Auto Workers Local 149 President Burke Justice faces the uncertainty of unemployment looming on the horizon.
He and about 125 fellow workers at the Federal Mogul friction plant on Papermill Road in Winchester are expected to be laid off around March. And, with most of those workers being older, that prospect is all the more frightening.
On Tuesday, Justice sat down in the UAW Local 149 hall and discussed an anonymous letter sent by a co-worker to the Daily.
That letter says that employees are angry with the "tiny" severance package being offered, that their jobs are being moved to a Federal Mogul plant in Juarez, Mexico, and that Winchester employees would be asked to train Mexican workers coming up to the plant from that facility.
Justice said the majority of the letter was accurate.
He said union leaders were told about the imminent closure about 15 minutes before the rest of the plant in June.
"They said there wasn't anything we could've done to change it, and due to economic conditions, they were moving the product out of the country," Justice said. "Part of our product's going to China. The other part's going to Mexico."
A little bit of the work -- the Winchester plant makes mostly heavy-duty brake shoes and pads -- would go to another Federal Mogul site in Glasgow, Ky., he added.
However, according to Federal Mogul corporate communications director Jim Burke, all of the Winchester work is staying stateside.
"Their work's actually being transferred to our friction manufacturing facility in Glasgow, Ky.," he said.
Union President Justice said the Juarez workers are at the Papermill Road plant -- where nearly all the workers are unionized -- this week.
"They wanted us to train them," he said. "We said no. They brought them in anyway. We were told this was an upper-level management decision. It wasn't a local level management decision.
"It was like a slap in the face, or worse. Here they are, taking our livelihood and sending it someplace else, and yet they want us to train those people to do what we have learned over the past 30 or 35 years, depending on who you're talking to and how long they've been there."
He has worked at the plant, which has had several owners, since 1987, and said Federal Mogul bought it from Cooper Industries in 1996. At one point, there were about 1,000 people in various departments, Justice said.
Production worker Phillip Pugh is the union chapter's vice president.
"I think it's sad that America's been suffering for years, that our work's been going overseas just so that the rich can get richer and the poor get poorer," he said.
"Basically, it's corporate greed," Justice agreed.
The union's been told Federal Mogul's goal is to shut down the plant by the end of March.
"They were supposed to lay off some people this month, but they pushed that back," Justice said.
Instead, about 10-20 workers are going to keep their jobs till Jan. 11, he said.
"They've got work coming in," Justice said. "They got all kinds of work coming in."
Even with shipping costs, Chinese workers' wages are low enough that the product only costs about half what it does in the U.S. to manufacture, he said.
"We're by no means getting paid high-dollar wages," Justice said. "We haven't taken a raise in 10 years. We've given back [some] of our insurance [benefits]."
Plant operator pay is $17.06 an hour, he said.
"The biggest problem is we are an older plant," according to Justice. "I think the average age of the person in there is like 58, so we're really at the point in our lives where we're too old for people to want us, to take us and to retrain us and stuff. At the same time, we're too young to retire."
Past union president Rick Rodeheaver, who retired in 2010 after 37 years at the plant, agreed on the dilemma faced by employees.
"When you're 56 and 58-years-old, you're looking forward to retirement," he said. "You're not looking forward to going out and getting another job. Yeah, you're going to have difficulties. You haven't kept up with the way things have gone in the industry. It's rough."
A government retraining program for employees whose jobs have gone overseas will be available to workers, said Justice, who added local managers have done a good job of getting that information to employees.
Like the anonymous letter writer, Justice -- who said he wasn't its author -- feels not enough is being offered to employees.
"[The company representative] made it quite clear to us as far as Federal Mogul is concerned, we got a paycheck at the end of each week, [and] that's what we were owed," he said.
An incentive was offered to keep employees at the plant before it closes, Justice added.
"They told us it was generous," he said. "I didn't think it was too damn generous."
Rodeheaver added, "I think the industry [standard] now is two weeks' pay for every year of service, and it's way off that."
Years ago, though, the union got it put into members' contracts that if they had reached a certain age and certain years of experience, they'd be paid their retirement if the plant closed down, Justice said, and that is part of the closing agreement. But, that's part of the severance package, he said.
"A good number" of employees will receive their retirement, Justice said.
He admits he has "no clue" what he'll do come March.
"I will be like the rest of them, out there looking for a job," he said. "I will be 60 by the time they throw me out probably, or right at it. It's just a sad state of affairs when they call for trade with other countries [that calls for] us having to go down to their wage so that we can compete. There's a lot of angry people in there."
Jim Burke, the manufacturer's communications director, said he didn't have specifics on what was being offered to workers.
"We work very hard to maintain our manufacturing global locations that can best serve our customers and serve the shareholders of the company," he said Tuesday. "We do maintain a pretty extensive manufacturing base throughout North America. We have experienced significant over-capacity on a global basis for brake friction products, which necessitated the closure of the Winchester facility. Certainly, we're sensitive to the concerns of the employees. We're maintaining dialogue with the local union and are working to keep the employees informed, and resolve matters as best we can."
Burke said there are 22 Federal Mogul facilities in the U.S. According to the company's website, there are two plants in Canada, 10 in Mexico, 14 in Germany, 11 in France, 11 in China, nine in India, seven in Italy and dozens more throughout Europe, Africa, South America and Asia.
Federal Mogul is experiencing "tremendous price pressure" with other countries, particularly India and China, exporting cheaper products to the U.S., Burke said. Additionally, in the next five years brake components will be required to have lower levels or zero copper, which will require capital.
"We will invest in locations where our global growth markets are driving stronger demand for the local products," Burke said.
Contact staff writer Sally Voth at 540-465-5137, ext. 164