By AMANDA GRAY
THE GOSHEN NEWS
With tears in her eyes and on her cheeks, United Steelworkers Union Local 9550 vice president Deb Hathaway shouted to passing friends, “We’re not done yet!”
Just minutes before, plant manager Rich Brown had announced Cequent Performance Products would be closing sometime in 2013, though no exact details about how the closure would happen have been made available.
“All these people we have worked with are our family,” Hathaway said as she stood on the company’s property.
Local 9550 president Brian Wilson said the mood of employees was sad, but that the union is still continuing with a federal lawsuit filed against Cequent’s parent company, TriMas, out of Bloomfield Hills, Mich.
“Closing early is a violation of our union contract,” Wilson said.
Hathaway said summons were served to the company late last week. TriMas has filed a motion to have the lawsuit dismissed.
“We think (living out the terms of the contract) is the right thing to do,” she said.
TriMas President and Chief Executive Officer Dave Wathen said in a statement issued Wednesday afternoon that TriMas has launched many growth and productivity initiatives to grow the company and open new plants. In the same statement, the company announced the closure of the Goshen plant.
“While these types of decisions are never easy, we make them with significant consideration,” he said. “We are focused on providing a smooth transition for our customers and remain committed to providing quality product with speed. For those employees affected by the closure, the company is committed to working with them during this transition.”
Dustin Butler, a union member and Cequent employee of three years, said the news was not unexpected, but still hard to take.
“It’s really bad timing before the holidays,” Butler said. “I would have rather heard Monday (the original date stated by the company as the deadline for a decision).”
Hathaway said she and Wilson were called around 1:30 p.m. and asked to come in by 2:15 p.m. Wilson, who works second shift, wasn’t even ready for work, Hathaway noted.
“They couldn’t officially make the announcement without telling them first,” Butler said.
Hathaway said she wasn’t expecting the announcement Wednesday after an early morning bomb threat. She thought she and Wilson were being called in to discuss the bomb threat and response to it.
“They called us into a meeting room, and then they told us,” Hathaway said.
The employees of the first shift were gathered into a large department area and told via megaphone, Hathaway said.
Crystal Birch, a 10-year employee and recording secretary for the union, said she felt her stomach drop when she heard the announcement.
“It’s hard to lose your job,” she said, watching her fellow employees leave work.
Birch said she works the day shift as a saw press operator. She’s the sole bread winner for her family, and her husband is retired.
“I’ve got five years left until retirement — who’s going to hire me?” Birch asked.
Randy Phillips, a 10-year employee and past union officer, said he is currently on vacation and only stopped in the office to pick up his check when he heard the news of the company’s closure.
He said the closure was a “foregone conclusion.”
“They say its competition, but I say it’s corporate greed,” Phillips said. “This division has made them millions.”
Workers at the Cequent plant manufacture tow hitches and other towing products.
Butler said this division of the company has set profit records for the last few quarters of production, and that it has been profitable overall for the company.
Ron Ross, a 16-year veteran of Cequent, looked at the building through the chain link fence surrounding the property. He works days, and was in the crowd when everyone was told the company will close.
“It was sad,” Ross said of the mood. “We’ve been here so long. This place is like a family.”
Ross was upset by the reasoning behind the decision to move, he said. Not performance or quality of work, he said, but balance sheets and profits.
“For them to say we’re closing not because of performance...” he trailed off. “The stockholders’ view is that they can make more money trying to make the same product in Mexico, but that’s impossible.”
Ross said the company will give employees more information on the closure’s timeline next week, with several meetings set to answer questions from employees.
Former USW president and 10-year employee Mike Hanna said the focus needs to be beyond Cequent’s walls, too.
“This closing not only affects the employees here, but all of the businesses around here,” Hanna said. “How many people go to McDonald’s during lunch, or stop at Speedway for gas or get their cars at the Car Company? One guy who works here has a $40 package to the car wash over here — and he lives in Wakarusa. The only reason he’s got that is because he works over here.”
Many of the workers come from outside of the community, he said.
Beyond the Goshen plant, the Huntington, Ind., warehouse will also close, according to TriMas’ statement.
Threat rattles employees
Earlier in the day, a threat scrawled across a bathroom stall sparked an evacuation and search of the building, according to Hathaway.
Earlier in the day before the closure announcement, Hathaway said, “I was shocked,” by the newest threat. She said another written threat was found scrawled in the men’s bathroom Monday. That threat indicated a shooting would take place at the plant that day. Since the company announced in October it might close the plant, there have been four total threats found, she said.
“We were trying to deal with it in the building,” she said.
Union officers had posted statements on bulletin boards telling the perpetrator they were only harming their fellow workers by frightening them.
“You can’t take that lightly because someone out there is really upset because they are losing their job,” Hathaway said. “I am scared to go to into work.”
But, she said her fellow employees expect her to be on the job and providing union leadership, so even though her family is worried about her, she has stayed on the job. Also, Goshen police have been stationed at the plant for the past three weeks as a precaution, according to Hathaway.
Hanna said all of the threats were found in the bathroom stalls, and that a worker who was previously employed at Nu-Wood when an employee opened fire 10 years ago helped initiate the evacuation Wednesday morning. Initially, employees were not evacuated from the building — not until 8 a.m., about an hour after the message was found.
“Bang! Bang! This is your last and final warning — Nov. 19,” is what the message said, according to Hathaway.
Hanna blamed the delay in the announcement for the company’s closing as a partial cause for the threats.
“I think that’s why things escalated,” he said. “If they would have just told us Monday, I don’t think it would have happened.”
Goshen News staff writer Roger Schneider contributed to this report.