Friday, Oct 20, 2017
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Automotive

Fostoria spark plug factory may soon be closed

FOSTORIA -- When union leaders from Fostoria’s Autolite spark plug factory showed up to a meeting last week with company executives to begin negotiating their next labor contract, they were met with unexpected news — there would be no new contract.

Rank Group Ltd., the plant’s owner, was planning to shutter the factory. If that happens, 56 people would lose their jobs.

“At that point, we started asking questions. ‘How long, what’s going on, is there anything we can do?’” said Bob Teeple, president of United Auto Workers 533, who represents the workers. “They said basically there’s just too much capital expenditures to keep it in Fostoria. I don’t agree with that, I really don’t.”

Union officials were told plans called for the facility to shut down by the end of next year’s first quarter. Mr. Teeple said they weren’t told how much money the company believed it would need to spend to keep the plant viable.

Autolite was not long ago the city’s largest employer, topping out at more than 1,000 employees. But the plant has been shedding jobs for more than a decade, with the biggest hit coming in 2008, when hundreds of jobs were shifted to Mexico.

At that time, Honeywell International owned the Autolite brand. Rank Group Ltd., a private investment firm, purchased the brand from Honeywell in 2011 and folded Autolite into its automotive subsidiary Fram Group.

Officials with Fram couldn’t be reached for comment Tuesday. The person who answered the phone at Rank Group’s headquarters in New Zealand said the company typically doesn’t speak to the media.

Though the plant once cranked out completed spark plugs, today it makes only the ceramic insulators, which are shipped to Mexico for final assembly.

Even though employment at the plant has been trending downward, the company’s decision caught Mr. Teeple off guard for a number of reasons — not least of which the fact the Rank Group had just a couple months ago called back a half-dozen employees who had previously been laid off.

“Some of them quit other jobs to come here,” he said. “The big thing is four years from now, 85 percent of the people in the plant can retire. I think that has something to do with why they’re doing it.”

While he’d like to think the plant can be saved, Mr. Teeple isn’t terribly hopeful. The union has gone from seeking a new five-year contract to trying to work out a severance or early retirement package for the employees who would be displaced when the plant closes.

Their current labor contract expires on Nov. 1.

As of Tuesday, the Rank Group had not filed a mass layoff notice with the state of Ohio, something it would be required to do if it’s cutting 50 or more jobs.

For Mr. Teeple, who himself has worked at the plant for more than 22 years, and other long-time employees, the pending closure is frustrating.

“They’ve committed their life to it,” he said of the plant’s remaining employees. “We’ve done a really good job for this company.”

Messages left for both the mayor of Fostoria and the Fostoria Economic Development Corp. weren’t returned.

Contact Tyrel Linkhorn at tlinkhorn@theblade.com419-724-6134, or on Twitter @TyrelLinkhorn.

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