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Local workers recall East Huntingdon plant closing

| Sunday, Aug. 24, 2008

Lloyd Marker remembers the assembly line grinding to a halt and an eerie silence as managers and men in suits gathered around the machinery.

Immediately, he knew whatever they had to say couldn't be good.

In November 1987, Volkswagen of America officials chose Thanksgiving week to tell employees that the East Huntingdon plant would end its 10-year run and close six months later. Workers, although not surprised, still were crushed when they learned the German automaker would leave the United States to manufacture cars in Europe and Mexico.

"Everybody started crying and hugging. It was a disaster," said Marker, 68, of Scottdale. "After that, we just went home."

Twenty years and one day after the plant shut down, former Volkswagen Westmoreland workers felt as though the company took another swing at them. On July 15, Volkswagen announced plans to return to America and open a $1 billion assembly plant in Chattanooga, Tenn., that will employ 2,000 people in 2011.

History will not repeat itself in Chattanooga, insisted Jill Bratina, a spokeswoman for the Volkswagen of America Group, which will invest $1 billion to produce a mid-size sedan there. She said the company has no plans to leave when incentives estimated at $500 million in government assistance and tax breaks dry up.

"I wish it would have come here," Marker said. "But I hope this time, they stay forever. I hope they make it."

Hopes and dreams

In the beginning, there was hope for Westmoreland County, too.

In 1976, Volkswagen invested $250 million when it chose a never-completed Chrysler plant to manufacture its diesel-powered Rabbit. In what was then the richest corporate deal in state history, Gov. Milton Shapp and local officials crafted an incentive package worth nearly $100 million in government assistance, highway and rail improvements and a property-tax exemption for the nation's first foreign-owned auto assembly plant.

Volkswagen pumped $250 million into the sprawling complex on 1,200 acres adjacent to Route 119 near Interstate 70 and the New Stanton exit of the Pennsylvania Turnpike.

Criticism of the deal was overshadowed by the promise of 5,700 high-paying jobs. At a time when the federal minimum wage was $2.30 an hour, leaders reasoned that the economically depressed region needed to replace jobs lost to the decline of the steel and coal industries.

Thousands of men and women from all over Western Pennsylvania, willing to drive long distances for the pay and benefits, flooded the plant with job applications.

"Everybody I talked to was hoping to get a job there," said Kenneth Cramer Jr., 58, of Scottdale, who worked in quality assurance.

There were problems from the start.

Before the plant opened, Volkswagen conceded that the U.S. venture was a gamble in "a problem market" marked by sluggish sales and intense competition from other small car makers.

Minorities picketed the site, seeking fair treatment in the hiring process. Six months after the April 1978 opening, employees went on strike to secure a union contract and hold Volkswagen to its agreement to pay wages comparable to auto workers elsewhere, about $3 more per hour. Strikes often idled production as workers protested policies regarding shift lengths and breaks and fought for higher wages.

Cramer said grievances and walkouts at Volkswagen "gave me a bad taste for unions." Melvin Apicella, 51, of Menallen Township, Fayette County, disagrees.

"When the union came in, it felt like heaven opened up," said Apicella, a skilled tradesman who repaired robots, electrical equipment and machinery. "There was a big difference for skilled workers, who went from $7 to $12 an hour."

Rolling along

In 1980, Rabbits were selling, production peaked at 200,000 cars and some 5,700 employees worked at the plant.

Former employees recalled drinking together at local bars when their shifts ended. Men and women -- married and single -- started affairs during tedious days and nights on the assembly line. Workers supported local charities, patronized area businesses and enjoyed vacations and comfortable lifestyles.

"You had a little city," said Tom Nevi, 64, of Scottdale, who worked there for 10 years. "The place was huge and there were a million stories."

The good times were short-lived.

By 1981, car buyers were tired of the Rabbit that hit the American market in 1974. Sales dipped as gas prices fell and consumer preference shifted to larger models.

John Wolkonowicz, senior automotive analyst for Global Insight in Lexington, Mass., watched the demise of the unreliable compact that cost more than its competition and lacked quality.

"It was probably the most troublesome Volkswagen ever built," Wolkonowicz said.

As sales dropped, production cuts resulted in shutdowns and layoffs.

Furloughed employees relied on food pantries and donations from coworkers still on the job. Those saddled with high mortgages began to lose their homes. By December 1982, many turned to charities for Christmas toys for their children.

Mark Brinker, 58, of Derry recalls co-workers worrying over bills and high payments -- then about $500 a month -- for homes they could no longer afford.

"I used to tell them, 'I sleep better than you,' because I kept my same house with a $151 mortgage payment even after I started making more money," he said. "I saw a lot of people coming to work sick just because they needed to make money."

By the beginning of 1983, with more than half of the work force furloughed, the second shift was eliminated.

Faced with diminishing popularity, the company introduced the high-performance Rabbit GTI. In 1984, the Rabbit was modified again and called the Golf. As sales of the GTI and Golf slowed, production of the Jetta followed in 1986.

Former workers watched the downhill spiral. They just didn't know how -- or had no power -- to correct a series of mistakes.

"Back then, the Germans didn't understand the American market. They insisted that people buy cars for the engineering, but here, people like the bells and whistles," Marker said.

Ken Prevenslik, president of UAW Local 2055 for 10 years, said he wrote to German managers offering to renegotiate the contract to keep the plant open.

"They told me they decided to sell cars in Europe built on German engineering and not to attempt to appeal to a fickle U.S. market more concerned with cosmetic appeal," said Prevenslik, the human resources and risk manager for Jameson Family Markets in Uniontown.

After Volkswagen

Employees who helped make a million vehicles heard no bells and whistles when the last car rolled out of the plant on July 14, 1988.

The lucky ones found new, albeit lower-paying, jobs. Training benefits helped others with college, nursing programs or trade schools. Some foundered aimlessly, moving from one menial job to the next.

Money problems, alcohol abuse and depression were common, former workers recall. Changing lifestyles broke up many marriages, according to Marker, who divorced after the shutdown.

Marker found a manufacturing job at Williamhouse in Scottdale, where he earned $4.25 an hour -- a far cry from his $16 rate at Volkswagen. Retired, he collects a $149 monthly Volkswagen pension and works part-time as a school crossing guard.

"It was tough. People didn't want to hire us. They thought we wouldn't work because we were used to high wages," Marker said.

Prospects were few in the region, where steel mills, mines and factories were idle. Local businesses suffered from the loss of Volkswagen's $78 million payroll.

Brinker learned to do plumbing and heating repairs and then worked for an environmental firm from 1990 until 1997. He applied three times before getting hired at Sony, the plant's current tenant, and remained there for 10 years before his division closed.

"It was good while it lasted. Very few people my age work at the same job for 30 years anymore," said Brinker, an ice delivery truck driver.

Apicella, then 31 with a pregnant wife and three children, used training benefits to complete a 28-month program at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia while working part-time to feed his family back in Fayette County.

He loves his job at Southwest Regional Medical Center in Waynesburg, Greene County, where he performs cardiovascular testing. Still, he worries about the future because he's moved through a series of healthcare jobs.

"How do you save for retirement• I'd tell the people in Tennessee to get Volkswagen for all they can, because in 10 years they could be left with half their life gone and a whole new direction," Apicella said.

Depression rendered some workers unable to cope with the shutdown. Former workers still talk about a string of suicides, including a single mother who hanged herself and a man who shot himself on the road leading to the plant.

Mt. Pleasant Mayor Jerry Lucia, the union's group benefits representative, kept track of the Volkswagen suicides for about two years.

"After about a dozen, I got so depressed I quit counting," said Lucia, a manager at Klocek Burial Vaults.

Cramer remained positive, even after prospects at auto plants elsewhere fell through. He handed out 200 resumes at job fairs but could not get hired, so he started a home remodeling business.

Still, he thinks about Volkswagen.

"I wonder whether they had it planned. From the beginning, it was rumored that the plant would stay open for 10 years, until all the government incentives and tax deferments ran out, and that's exactly what happened," Cramer said.

"Who knows what will happen this time?"

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