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UAW helps Ford Move the 100 Year Old Rouge Plant Into Tomorrowland

PHOTO (select to view enlarged photo)

By Maureeen McDonald
Senior Editor
Michigan Bureau
The Auto Channel

Blue coveralls and union jackets were everywhere at the 100th anniversary of the Rouge, Ford Motor Company’s premier factory. If organized labor has suffered setbacks in Washington, D.C. and Lansing, MI, the work force has serious traction in Dearborn, MI.

“The Rouge complex is where UAW members for generations have built quality products and earned the dignity and respect of the automotive community,” said Rory Gamble, UAW-Ford Vice President. “In many ways, the Rouge complex is the heartbeat of all that the American labor movement represents.

Labor leaders, Ford executives and rank and file joined together for a celebration on a crisp September morning as Bill Ford, executive chairman detailed some of the losses and major wins over the years and announced the innovative, aluminum-bodied F150 would soon be joined by a hybrid electrified F-150 made at the plant.

The legacy is known worldwide for its massive size and sheer longevity.

PHOTO (select to view enlarged photo)

The Rouge helped build America’s middle class with the $5-a-day wage, providing jobs for disabled workers and profit sharing. Ford introduced social workers to visit homes and assure families were living up to company standards to keep their jobs. The plant had its own ambulance service, police force and hospital. At its peak in the 1930s, 100,000 people worked at the plant. If the Rouge were a city, it would have been the fourth largest in Michigan. On the sprawling site was a power plant, steel mill, glass factory and hundreds of miles of rail and assembly lines.

In 1937, the Rouge became the flash point of company and union relations with the Battle of the Overpass on Miller Road near the pedestrian entrance to the factory. Walter Reuther, leader of the UAW and others came to the plant to demand an $8-dollar, six-hour day, according to Wikipedia. When the stopped to pose for a photograph, Ford’s director of security, Harry Bennett and the Pinkerton security force surrounded them and began beating heads. Several people were hospitalized, some never completely recovered.

Battle Of the Overpass The Rouge Dearborn

Within three years the company ratified a contract with the UAW and has continued collective bargaining, even though the work force has dwindled. The Rouge survived 18 recessions over the 20th century. Six employees died in a power plant explosion in 1999 with more than a dozen others injured. Bill Ford went to the hospital to visit survivors and vowed to help make the plant safer for all.

Ford, great grandson of the founder, said people suggested in the early 2000s that the Rouge should be shuttered. Instead it became a world class model for sustainability. The staff installed sedum, a rugged plant often used as ground cover, on the roof of a new 1.1 million-square-foot assembly plant in 2002. That would represent 10 acres, 454,000 square feet to be rolled out, watered and nurtured on the world’s largest “living roof. It was part of a $2 billion redevelopment project Ford undertook to modernize the plant.

A sedum roof, which the company has sustained for better than 15 years, reduces the amount of energy needed to heat or cool the building and cleanses rainwater flowing off the building.

Automation, globalization and the economy have taken a toll on the worker count. Today the employee count hovers around 7,000 with 500 giant robots. Yet the assembly line keeps moving along.

Models from some of the 28 vehicle lines were dotted around the parking lot where the ceremony was held, from the Model A, to a Ford tractor, to pictures of the Eagle, a cargo ship the plant built during World War I.

Today, Ford and UAW are investing $35 million to expand a nearby facility to further train its workforce: Ford has opened a new $45 million Advanced Manufacturing Center, a 135,000 square foot building nearby to train a 21st century workforce.

One of the newest trends is the power suit, or exoskeleton, that resembles Iron Man’s armor from the Marvel Comic’s films. This would be a metal framework fitted with motorized “muscles” that can multiply the strength of a worker welding or tightening a vehicle on the line. It has a rigid lumbar support and a neck pillow to help reduce repetitive motion injuries, the bane of existence for skilled labor.

Another work station conducts 3-D printing to make tools that help improve the job and the ergonomics for workers. Many of the parts are prototypes that go to a supplier to make in volume, but it represents the kind of innovation workers and management are producing together.

Ten million people have toured the Rouge to watch one of the few assembly lines open to the public. The guest list includes countless celebrities and political officials, including President Bill Clinton in 2004 and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg.

“To us, it’s more than a factory,” Bill Ford said. “It’s a source of pride for generations of workers who have built the best cars and trucks in the world. It’s an all-American symbol of Strength, opportunity, and hope; a place where we’ve always been creating tomorrow together.”

To take a Rouge plant tour To take a Rouge plant tour