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As Lear workers' jobs vanish, their prospects fade

Losing jobs at Tampa’s Lear Corp. are, clockwise from top left, machine operators Betsaida Valentin, Jean Muller, Nedra Banks and Elizabeth Rondon, maintenance tech Eric Franks and control tech and UAW Local 2405 chief Richard Neal.

Courtesy of Selim Merchant

Losing jobs at Tampa’s Lear Corp. are, clockwise from top left, machine operators Betsaida Valentin, Jean Muller, Nedra Banks and Elizabeth Rondon, maintenance tech Eric Franks and control tech and UAW Local 2405 chief Richard Neal.

TAMPA — Working an auto electronics assembly line, Elizabeth Rondon, Nedra Banks and Eric Franks probably don't spend a lot of their busy lives contemplating the pros and cons of a merger between General Motors and Chrysler.

It's not like the old line — "As GM goes, so goes the country" — means much anymore. But "as GM goes, so goes its suppliers" means everything to Lear Corp. and its more than 90,000 employees. A study issued last week by industry consultants Grant Thornton says the failure of GM or Chrysler could spur 50,000 job losses among companies that supply them.

Lately, these Tampa line workers wonder and worry about their fate at Lear's facility at 5100 W Waters Ave. There, for a while yet, they still assemble electronic components and systems for auto interiors.

The workers say they were told by Lear officials that Tampa was a sharp operation with an error rate far lower than industry standards. They were told they were safe.

But in September, Lear returned and told the facility, which once employed close to 600 workers, that it would start winding down the local plant, lay people off in waves, and finally close it entirely next September. Most hourly jobs, which average $13.50 in Tampa, will be outsourced to a lower-cost Lear electronics plant built in Apodaca, Mexico. Other jobs will shift to China.

Based in the heart of auto country in Southfield, Mich., Lear last week swung to a $98.2-million quarterly loss. CEO Bob Rossiter said Lear is cutting costs and preparing for a long-term industry downturn. October auto sales are forecasted to be the lowest in a quarter century.

Lear shares traded as high as $37 in the past year, but closed Friday at a startling $1.95. Last year, Lear stockholders voted down a $37.25-a-share takeover offer by investor Carl Icahn.

Rondon, 38 and a machine operator at Lear for nine years, works for $14.28 an hour on Line 7. She assembles interior electronics for car alarms and memory seats and mirrors for BMWs. She is a single mom with two boys, 12 and 10, and an extra, part-time job working the front desk at a Lifestyle Fitness gym.

"I cannot make it on unemployment," says Rondon, who is updating her resume and preparing to look. But she seems unsure — as she should — in this struggling local economy whether she can find a job that pays anything close to what she now earns.

Franks, 42, a 10-year Lear veteran who maintains the sophisticated laser and robotic equipment on the assembly lines, is also frustrated.

"Of all the electronics facilities in this area, we were among the best," he says. "There are a lot of extremely talented people who work there. Our plant made money" — though apparently not enough for Lear, which wants to duplicate (so far unsuccessfully) the quality output of its Tampa operation in Mexico.

A single dad supporting four kids 11 to 17, Franks may have more luck finding work. As a certified network engineer, he can look across a range of industries. But not in electronics.

"Not unless you want to live in Mexico or China," he says.

What really bugs Richard Neal, a Lear control technician for eight years and president of UAW Local 2405 at the plant, is the new ploy by automakers in asking the government for bailout money — while shipping jobs overseas.

"I am upside-down over this," seethes Neal, 53. He frets over less-educated Lear workers looking for comparable jobs.

David Sztroin was laid off three weeks ago — two days after his honeymoon — as a maintenance technician at Lear. He has a college degree in business management and already is seeking interviews. So far, it's rough.

"They want you to be a plant manager and do brain surgery on the side and pay $10 an hour," Sztroin (pronounced "Stroin") says. And 150 people show up for any openings. If he must, he'll move back to Texas, but he wants to stay in Florida.

This is an all-too-common story.

Will GM and Chrysler merge? Probably, but they will regret it because it will diminish them both. Will Lear Corp. survive? Maybe. Will Mexico benefit? You bet. Are a lot of good Tampa workers taking it on the chin? Darn straight.

Robert Trigaux can be reached at trigaux@sptimes.com.

As Lear workers' jobs vanish, their prospects fade 11/01/08 [Last modified: Monday, November 3, 2008 7:05pm]
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