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A Shift in Manufacturing, As Workers Lose Jobs

Filed by KOSU News in Business, Feature, Local News.
December 15, 2011

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Traditional manufacturing jobs in Oklahoma have fallen off dramatically in the last couple years. At one plant in the process of closing, paychecks aren’t the only thing that will be missed. To those who worked there, the factory felt like a family…

Maintenance man Ken McCray punched a time card for 27 years at the Mercury Mercruiser plant.

“I don’t know it’s just the camaraderie that’s gone on around here for so many years. You’re with these people more than what you are with your family, actually.”

McCray’s time at Mercruiser is right about the average for the plant. Others made the trip to the northern outskirts of Stillwater for 33, even 35 years. Paula Stollings put in 30 years. In her last days at the plant as a group leader, she’s thinking about the journey, not the end.

“We were kids when we came out here, we’ve been married, we’ve been divorced, you’ve seen your kids grow up, your grandkids, so they know all your lives, the personal side, so that’s the hard part.”

Paychecks were just a number to the plant manager, maintenance workers, and group leaders. There’s a certain satisfaction about putting together a product, and watching it roll off the line.

“It’s just amazing,” said Bob Sauer, leader of the production assembly group. “There was so much teamwork. If a person is down another person next to you or just anywhere walking by will come over and pick you up and it just makes you feel so good. So enthused to make a product.”

At its height Mercury Mercruiser employed nearly 400 people in Stillwater. But then in 2009, the company wanted to cut costs. They managed to get major union concessions from their larger plant in Wisconsin, so they’ll soon move all their operations there. Lawrence Robinson came to the Stillwater plant in 1976. As Director of Operations, he had to deliver the news.

“Well between sniffles I basically said, ‘Hey it’s been a good run, we’ve all had our ups and our downs and we’ve come to the end of it and it’s good to know that we’ve finished with pride.’ I think that’s just about where I cracked up.”

When the last boat engine rolled off the line earlier this month, Bob Sauer couldn’t hold back any longer.

“To me it’s kind of like going to a funeral. We watched that last one go out and I lost everything. But we know we did the best and we made a quality, high quality product.”

Just down the road, another plant’s closing. QuadGraphics prints many nationally distributed magazines, but it’s 240 jobs are leaving Oklahoma. Since 2008, the state has lost more than 20-thousand jobs in the manufacturing industry.Oil and gas drilling has started to build payrolls up, but not enough to get back to previous levels.

Back at Mercruiser, Plant Manager Lawrence Robinson says his workers are rookies at the job search process.

“They came here, their mother or dad worked here, they signed a couple of papers and said hey put him over on this line or that line. We don’t know what’s expected of us when we go out and look for a job.”

Robinson says Mercruiser has tried to blunt the fall. They’ve held a couple job fairs, and have worked to try to get them ready for the job hunt. Maintenance man Ken McCray worked every shift in Stillwater, and knows the 700,000 plus square foot factory like a tour guide, now headed to a job in Tulsa.

“It’s not going to be home. It’s going to be different.”

Going forward, they hope scattering won’t take away their second family. Bob Sauer.

“Most of the people that left today and they say hey you keep in touch with me, you give them your address and phone number hey just call me anytime you need some help. That makes you feel good. People are just tremendous.”

The workers plan to organize a reunion every two years at the Payne County Fairgrounds, to keep in touch.

For a list of announced layoffs in Oklahoma since 2010: click here.

3 Responses to “A Shift in Manufacturing, As Workers Lose Jobs”

  1. Brad says:

    Has anyone done a study of the loss or addition of manufacturing jobs, pre right to work compared to post right to work? I seems that it has had an oppisite effect.

  2. Chris says:

    This is bigger than right to work. Most of the manufacturing jobs (not necessarily MerCruiser) are either going away or going overseas. There is a net minus on manufacturing jobs here in the US. Mercury is consolidating everything at their home plant because of the contraction in business, not because union labor is a better deal. If you re-read the story, the union had to make some pretty major concessions to keep things there. Otherwise, moving here, a right to work state, would have happened.

  3. Neils says:

    I believe that the aim of manufacturers is to automate the manufacturing process as much as possible. Meaning, on cases of packaging equipment, you have robotic arms doing the bulk load intended for people.

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