A secret meeting in 2015 between Ford Motor Co. and the UAW led to job security and a sigh of relief among factory workers three years later as they begin manufacturing the Ford Ranger midsize pickup truck at the Michigan Assembly Plant in Wayne.
“We were developing the idea around bringing the Ranger back, and the Bronco, as well,” Joe Hinrichs, president of global operations at Ford, told the Free Press last week. “We thought it made sense to build it in the United States at a plant with history.”
The Wayne plant opened in 1957 and built Broncos from 1966 to 1996.
So, in the spring of 2015, Hinrichs and then-UAW President Dennis Williams, and Williams’ executive administrative assistant, Chuck Browning, met for a private lunch near the Detroit airport.
Hinrichs asked how labor might feel if Ford moved production of the Ford Focus sedan from Michigan to Mexico, and then retooled Wayne Assembly to build SUVs. The plan would need to be part of an upcoming labor contract, and Ford didn’t want to make the move without knowing if the UAW might support it.
“They were very supportive,” Hinrichs said. “They knew the workforce would love building the Ranger and Bronco again. So, we ended up making it part of the 2015 negotiations. This is a great story of collaboration between Ford and the UAW.”
On Monday, workers will celebrate and get rides in preproduction models of the Ranger on an off-road course created in a plant parking lot just for the event. Workers in body, stamping and paint returned earlier this month. Final assembly workers will return Oct. 29.
The first 2019 Rangers available to the public should roll off the line in a week or so.
“It’s exciting to see a pickup back in the plant again,” said Abraham Taylor, who started at Ford in 1963 and built the first seat on the first truck that rolled off the Wayne Assembly line.
“It was a Ford F-100. At the time, we was runnin’ pickups, buses, ice cream trucks,” said the U.S. Army veteran, who reminisced about building Ford trucks for the Army, Navy and Marines.
Back in the day, he was an inspector. Now Taylor works as a skilled tradesman, a gun welder fixture repairman. He remembers working the line — and seeing it stop — when President John F. Kennedy was shot.
Taylor, who declined to give his age, said he has no plans to retire from his 3-11 p.m. shift. But when he does, he hopes to move to Switzerland for skiing. For now, he’s savoring all that’s happening. And enjoying his 2010 F-150 pickup truck.
Historic Wayne plant
Called the Michigan Assembly Plant, the giant facility on Michigan Avenue opened in 1957 and reflects 60 years of American history.
It originally built station wagons and then, as gas prices rose, the plant was transformed to build small cars. It was the first automotive plant in the world to build gasoline, hybrid and electric vehicles on the same line, noted Kelli Felker, Ford spokeswoman who specializes in the manufacturing and labor.
Now it’s back to trucks.
As consumers shift from sedans to vehicles with taller silhouettes, assembly workers who build traditional passenger cars say they worry about job security. And then they, and Ford car dealers, joke that nothing looks like the Model T anymore and the only certainty is change.
Still, UAW workers say they view trucks as a safe space in manufacturing these days because consumer appetite for SUVs and trucks of all sizes seems insatiable.
Steady truck work
“With the ebbs and flows of the economy, we would have times of extreme overtime and times of extreme downtime,” said Walter Robinson, 52, of Redford, a former security guard and production worker at Ford who now oversees quality control. “People are looking forward to being able to work steady and get into the groove of the Ranger.”
Back in 2007 and 2008, right before the crash, and when Ford went out “and kinda hocked everything including the Blue Oval, and then they came out with a couple rounds of buyouts — the future was very tenuous at that time,” Robinson said. “A lot of people left because they didn’t know if it would stay open.”
The lower end car buyers disappeared first, before the higher end, he recalled, “which as kinda strange. Seems like the higher end would’ve went down first. But we bore the brunt.”
Robinson considered leaving Ford. But after losing his General Motors job to a plant closure years earlier, he decided to stick it out. And everything turned out OK.
“If people buy our vehicles, we will be able to provide for our families and send our kids to college,” said Robinson, who drives a 2017 Ford Taurus.
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While the Michigan Assembly Plant was being transformed, workers received 80 percent of their take-home pay.
“We are celebrating the vehicle’s return to North America,” Hinrichs said. “We launched this new generation of Ranger in late 2010-11. It’s now the No. 2 selling midsize truck in the world. It’s No. 1 in Europe, New Zealand and Africa.”
Ford has ceded the midsize truck segment in the United States until now.
Toyota is established as the clear leader among consumers.
Midsize pickups are among the fastest-growing U.S. segments, up 18 percent since September 2017, said Erich Merkle, U.S. sales analyst for Ford.
“It’s growing faster right now than SUVs,” he said
The midsize pickup fight has been between Toyota Tacoma and Chevrolet Colorado:
In 2016, consumers bought 448,400; including 191,632 Tacomas and 108,725 Colorados.
In 2017, consumers bought 452,335; including 198,124 Tacomas and 112,996 Colorados.
Through September 2018, consumers purchased 396,398; including 183,909 Tacomas and 104,838 Colorados.
Ford is confident that the Ranger will sell.
“Our Ranger does extremely well all over the world,” Hinrichs said. “Our dealers know how to sell trucks.”
Toyota is undaunted by the challenge.
“Toyota welcomes the competition because it exposes more customers to the segment,” said Toyota spokesman Curt McAllister. “We remain confident that midsize truck enthusiasts will consider Tacoma, especially if their intentions are to go off pavement. Tacoma’s reputation and owner loyalty is heavily based on people who enjoy off-roading pursuits.”
In showing the Ranger to car dealers in Las Vegas this month, Ford displayed more than 100 accessories for the vehicle —many produced by Yakima, known for its high-end roof racks, bike racks, boat racks and camping gear. One display actually transformed the Ranger into a tent.
Midsize pickup sales are strongest along the Pacific Coast, primarily in California, said Chad Callander, Ranger consumer marketing manager. Ford noted that Los Angeles is the “megamarket” for the midsize pickup, with about 10 percent sold in the state. A lot are sold in Seattle, Portland and San Francisco.
“You get people who want a truck that’s a daily driving vehicle,” Callander said, “to move around the city, easy to park, that’s nimble.”
Nearly midsize pickup trucks are made in America. Toyota builds Tacomas in San Antonio, Texas, and Baja, Mexico, GM makes the the Colorado and GMC Canyon in Wentzville, Missouri. Nissan builds Frontiers in Canton, Mississippi; and Honda the Ridgeline in Lincoln, Alabama.