When Terry Williams started her job at the Mitsubishi Motors North America (MMNA) plant in Normal, Illinois, in 1989, she said it was like winning the lottery. For the next 26 years, she continued to build her life, raised a son and had a job she loved and cherished. Then at the end of July, with just three years left until her retirement, Williams and her coworkers learned that their plant would close. Nothing could prepare her and the 994 other members of Local 2488 for the shock and devastation that now faced them.
“It’s devastating. It really truly is devastating. I’m crushed,” Williams said. “There are days that I cry, there are days that I’m OK with it, and there are days that I think, ‘I’m not going to come in here anymore.’”
With the plant closing and the current UAW contract ending Aug. 27, a new contract had to be made in order to give the membership security and an exit plan until all production stopped. Although nothing in the collective bargaining agreement would erase the anxiety and uncertainty of knowing they would soon be without jobs, it helped cushion the blow and gave options to members that simply would not be available had they not had a union.
Local 2488 Bargaining Chairman Roger Goodwin and the rest of the UAW bargaining team worked hard and tirelessly to ensure that he and his co-workers left with the best possible severance package.
“Prior to the bargaining we went through, only 8 percent could retire with full pensions. After we negotiated the severance package, 60 percent of our members can now retire with full pensions,” Goodwin said. “That’s a pretty big deal. Everyone is entitled to a lump sum depending on age and years of service. Also, almost every member has either retiree healthcare available or healthcare continuation for up to 16 months or the ability to cash out.”
Goodwin added, “The average age in the plant is about 54 years old and 90 percent of them have been here between 26 to 28 years. This is going to force many of them to leave the area and relocate to new jobs. The community will really be hurt by this.”
Nearly three decades ago, when ground was broken in the metropolitan town outside of Bloomington, Illinois, workers were excited about their future.
Roberto Avina remembers the excitement of getting a job at MMNA, but he also recalls the longevity of the plant was called into question since the first car rolled off the production line. “Since I started back in ’89, they were telling me that the plant was going to last only 10 years.”
The chartering of UAW Local 2488 soon followed on Aug. 28, 1989, making Mitsubishi’s only U.S. manufacturing facility the first transplant auto manufacturer to have its workforce become UAW members. For then-Region 4 Director and now-UAW President Dennis Williams, it was a proud and historical achievement in union organizing.
Avina continued: “After we became a UAW plant, it helped me to get another 16 years after that.”
For a smaller car company, having an auto plant in the United States was always a struggle as Mitsubishi continually faced tough competition globally in car sales. With a plant closure in perpetual conversation, hope would come in 2011 when the UAW worked with the company and state to secure a new car line to be built at the plant.
“It’s been kind of stressful because you never knew from day-to-day how long this would continue to go on because we were just plugging along day-by-day, really losing money,” Jerry Harcharik said.
Local 2488 and Mitsubishi tried several ways to keep product in the plant, including negotiating a deal that landed production of the Outlander Sport. But sadly, it still wasn’t enough as the automaker continued to face struggles. On July 24, Mitsubishi announced the plant would end production.
Since the announcement of the plant closing, the community rallied behind the workers at the plant. A task force -- made up of representatives from Mitsubishi and the UAW, community and business leaders, and other labor groups -- is actively pursuing other manufacturers to take over the plant giving hope that the closed plant won’t be closed for long.
Jerry Harcharik and Kevin Brown summed up the general feeling in the plant.
“In the end, I think it was important to be part of a union at times like these because we had no guarantees at all,” Brown said. “Having that union protection really gave us a little peace of mind and
they worked very hard in negotiating our severance/early retirement package, which I think will really be helpful to all of us.”
“Thanks to a good, sound closing agreement and collective bargaining agreement that will see it through till the end of days here, we do have some more light at the end of the tunnel. “ Harcharik added, “And that light isn’t an oncoming train, it’s an actual light.”