1980-1989: DECADE OF ECONOMIC TURMOIL & TRANSITION


Fewer Navistar workers commuting to Springfield


Lunch for the week
News-Sentinel photo by Ellie Bogue

Lunch for the week
Robert Manns packs a cooler with food that he will use over the week while he works at the Navistar International plant in Springfield, Ohio, last month. Manns spent the better part of a decade commuting to avoid relocating his family. He worked for International Harvester in Fort Wayne before Navistar but was laid off in 1982. Manns retired on Thursday, Sept. 30. He says he and his wife will have to get to know each other all over again.
By DOUG LeDUC of The News-Sentinel

Robert Manns spent the better part of a decade anticipating last Thursday, his last day with Navistar International.

He loved working for the company, but he'd had enough of the weekday bachelor life he adopted to keep his job without relocating his family. So he has retired at the earliest opportunity.

"I'm glad he's going to be home," said his wife, Karen. "You sort of get into the rut of them not being home, so it's going to be a big change, but I'm glad. It will be a nice change."

The Mannses faced another change in 1988, five years after Navistar, then known as International Harvester, halted its truck production in Fort Wayne.

Robert Manns had been laid off in 1982, the year before the local Harvester plant closed. He was unemployed for 17 months, then got a job driving a truck for Suelzer Moving Co. Before long, he was holding down two jobs, working 80 hours a week.

Then the offer came to work for Navistar in Springfield, Ohio. He accepted it without pulling up stakes in Fort Wayne.

Manns is among about 100 employees who have kept their families and primary residences in Fort Wayne while working at Navistar plants 125 miles away in Springfield, Ohio.

"We're talking 10 years ago at $15 to $16 an hour, and now, with the night bonus, at $21. You just can't turn that down; there's nowhere around here you can find a job that pays like that," Manns said.

"In my case, my boy was in junior high, and I had a daughter just getting ready to graduate from high school and a middle daughter who was just starting high school," he said. "It was pull them all out of schools, sell the house and uproot everybody, or uproot me. Uprooting me was easier."

For the International Harvester workers who accepted jobs in Springfield but kept their homes in Fort Wayne, employment became an experiment in adaptability.

Mike Orr had 21 years in with International Harvester when the local plant closed. He was offered a Springfield job with the company within six months, "but I didn't know whether I wanted to move there or commute back and forth, so I stayed out for 14 months while I was trying to decide what to do."

He took the job once he'd finished a major home-remodeling project, and for the first month, rented an apartment in Springfield, coming home on weekends.

"I'd drive up on Sunday and come back on Friday," he recalled. "I didn't like that at all."

So Orr joined a carpool for a few years. And then the opportunity arose to commute on one of four buses taking workers who lived in Fort Wayne to and from Springfield. Orr said he was surprised at how easy that was for him; the fare comes to $50 per week, and Orr has developed a knack for sleeping on the bus.

He usually leaves close to 3 a.m. and gets back around 6 p.m. He goes to bed around 11 p.m. or midnight and gets up after two or three hours of sleep, catching the rest of what he needs on weekdays on the bus.

"I get 7 hours, and I can function real well on five, so it doesn't bother me," he said. "It makes a long ride if you don't sleep, I'll tell you that. . . . It's just a psychological thing; you just rearrange your schedule."

For Orr, the only drawback has been the need to take a day off to conduct personal business on a weekday. He could retire now, but plans to work indefinitely.

There's only one bus making the trip now, because many of the workers who used to fill the others have retired, quit or relocated to Springfield.

Some workers have suffered under the stress of the commute or weekday separation from family. Manns said it probably has led to a lot of divorces, some auto accidents and some suicides.

"They tolerate it, a lot of them, to the point where they . . . get their 30 years in so they can retire (at full pension)," said Charlie Bush, president of United Auto Workers Local 402, which represents the employees.

Navistar's monthly pension for UAW members with 20 years amounts to $600, compared with full pension at $2,050, "so obviously, they wouldn't want to give that up," Bush said.

That was Manns' goal. Before taking an apartment in Springfield, he tried daily commuting, but found that wasn't an option for him, — even on the bus.

"I don't know how they do it. I can't relax. I'm one of those guys, when I get in a car I've got to drive because I just don't trust someone else driving," he said.

Manns has shared an apartment half an hour west of Springfield with an area resident who works a different shift at Navistar. They each pay $175 a month, plus cable television and utility bills.

"You miss out on an awful lot," Manns said. "(Your children) ask when you can go to a basketball game or football game, and in my case, I haven't been to one in I don't know how long.

"It's tough on me being gone, but it's got to be tough on the women having the guy gone, too. My boy, in his real formative teen years, I was never home; she's had to raise him. And if there was any problem with the house or car, she's by herself, more or less. . . ."I've been real fortunate; she's a real good woman."

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