Plant at 130th and Torrence is often overlooked
By MARK GUARINO Special to the Chicago Tribune
When Nick Rutovic is asked where he works, he knows what’s coming.
“When I say Ford, they always ask, ‘Oh, are you a dealer?’ ” Rutovic said. “When I tell them I work the assembly line, they say, ‘I thought Michigan had all the plants.’ “
Not so. The Chicago Assembly Plant, bounded by railway lines and tucked against the banks of the Calumet River, is the longest-running automotive plant in the history of Ford Motor Co. And it’s being counted on this year to produce new versions of two vehicles — the Taurus and the fuel-efficient Taurus SHO — that Ford hopes will help turn around profits. Production starts this week.
“With the industry being in survival mode right now, failure is not an option,” said Larry Moskwa, final assembly manager.
The 2.7 million-square-foot plant long at 130th Street and Torrence Avenue has been integral to the South Side manufacturing corridor despite its initial geographic isolation from the rest of the city (when Henry Ford opened the plant in 1924, it was surrounded by marshland). It has seen generations of families working to produce some of the most storied vehicles in Ford’s history — from the Model T to the Thunderbird to the Taurus.
Rutovic, 37, who grew up on the Southeast Side but just moved to Frankfort, joined Ford 17 years ago, following in the footsteps of his father and brother.
“Very dedicated,” he said of his family’s commitment over the years. “We don’t even think of owning a foreign car or driving anything but a Ford.”
Chicago Assembly remains the only automotive plant in Chicago, established before the city expanded that far south and before Hegewisch rose from the swamp with its tidy bungalows and neighborhood parks.
“Ford always did well for our [neighborhood]. … We just took it for granted,” Helen Such, 82, said while sipping coffee at Tom’s Truck Stop Restaurant, a diner located across the street from the plant.
Such grew up in Hegewisch, her two brothers worked at Chicago Assembly their entire lives, walking there because they lived so close.
“It’s in the family,” she said. “So I’m still driving one. You just felt it was the backbone of the community. We were always shocked to learn people didn’t know the plant was here. How could you not know?”
Louis “Smokey” Strapp, 73, who worked at Chicago Assembly two separate times and whose father was a plant engineer for 40 years, said he remembers hunting rabbits in the very area where his house now stands two blocks away. He said he used to follow his father to work during World War II and watch small armored vehicles being manufactured for the war effort.
Prairie grass still lines some areas of Hegewisch, except today they cover the abandoned steel mills — Wisconsin Steel, U.S. Steel and Republic Steel — that represent the ghosts of Chicago’s manufacturing glory years that ended in the early 1980s. Which is why Strapp said it was “amazing” Ford pressed forward and kept Chicago Assembly running even in lean times.
“There was so much work here for the people of Hegewisch. It was something,” he said.
Still, the plant has seen lean times. Last November Ford cut shifts from three to one, which resulted in 700 layoffs. The plant currently employs 1,372 workers, which is less than half the number during its heyday in the late 1970s.
“Whatever happens at this plant impacts the larger bistate area,” said Neil Bosanko, executive director of the South Chicago Chamber of Commerce. He pointed to the $88 million Ford invested in an adjacent manufacturing and supplier campus in 2004, which was supposed to boost both housing and the area economy. It didn’t happen quite that way, he said, because many of the workers lived in the suburbs or Indiana.
That means that except for the occasional takeout order at a restaurant, businesses don’t benefit because workers drive in and out without spending money, Bosanko said.
“We thought that the imminent construction of a Ford manufacturing campus would be a boon for the area. It was a little disappointing,” he said. “It’s not the cash cow we thought it would be.”
The recent layoffs didn’t help, said Karla Avelar, 25, a waitress at Tom’s, which used to get 50 employees a day coming through. Today, 10 is more likely. “Fifteen if we’re lucky,” she said.
Marilyn Engwall, community project director for the city’s Department of Community Development, said the unexpected downturn in the economy hit the automotive suppliers hard — many either closed or laid off workers. “Only a few of them are left,” she said.
The good news, Engwall said, is that “most are willing to come back,” with a successful launch of these vehicles.
“We hoped [the supplier park] would spur more industry and build on the jobs that are here … and it still can,” she said.
Ford appears positioned better for recovery from the downturn than rivals General Motors Corp. and Chrysler Group LLC as it did not declare bankruptcy or cede control to the federal government in exchange for bailout money.
Ford lost $14.6 billion in 2008 — its worst sales year in history. But in June, Ford sales were down 11 percent compared with the same period last year while GM sales fell 33 percent and Chrysler’s 42 percent.
The company invests in its products and Chicago Assembly, David Schoenecker, secretary and treasurer of United Auto Workers Local 551, said, citing the $400 million in improvements made in 2005. As a plant worker since 1976, he believes the facility has a reputation “for putting out a vehicle that is at times of the highest quality” the company has ever produced.
“Ford is not going to look at the plant as sustainable unless efficiency is high,” he said. “This is a roundabout compliment that says the Chicago Assembly Plant is up for the job. The old days of pushing it down the line and making sure it is out [are] done.”
Worker enthusiasm is high for the launch of the revamped version of the Taurus and the Taurus SHO, a high-performance luxury version with a fuel-efficient engine.
Renelda Gibson, 49, who grew up in Pullman but now lives in Sauk Village, followed her brother to Ford 15 years ago. Today she is a group leader in the quality department, where she inspects chips and scratches in the final assembly stage. Spotting a Taurus on the road is an exercise in both personal pride and company outreach, she said.
” ‘This is the car mom helped build! Look at the doors,’ ” she said she tells her kids. If she has the opportunity, she’ll even talk to the unsuspecting driver. “I say, ‘Hey, how’s your car? How’s your doors? I worked on your doors!'”