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Employees leave Wolverine Tube on Tuesday after the meeting about the plant closing.
Daily photo by Gary Cosby Jr.
Employees leave Wolverine Tube on Tuesday after the meeting about the plant closing.

Wolverine closing doors
Emotions mixed after announcement plant is shutting down

By Paul Huggins 340-2395

Employee emotions ranged from anger to tears to relief after Wolverine Tube officials announced Tuesday that it would halt production at its Decatur plant Jan. 6.

" 'Stunned' is the best word. Literally heartbroken," said one 25-year employee, who asked to remain anonymous. He added that his biggest worry right now is whether he'll have to pull his children out of college.

Anger, relief

An angry 21-year employee told The Daily at midday Tuesday that Wolverine "ruined my health." He said he had a list of complaints to share but changed his mind later in the afternoon after he calmed down and thought about possible repercussions.

"The last four or five years, they've been threatening to shut us down, shut us down," said another 21-year employee, who also didn't feel safe giving his name. "I hate to say it, but it's kind of a relief because you're not threatened anymore.

"A lot of people were relieved. A lot of people were upset," he said, describing the scene after Wolverine President Harold Karp informed employees their plant had reached the end of its life cycle.

"There were one or two ladies who were crying. Some of the men, they just walked out without saying anything."

People were mostly sad, these employees said, because they knew decades of "second family" relationships, forged even tighter by recent years of struggles, will soon end.

The closing affects 380 hourly, 42 salaried and 50 temporary workers involved in production. Of those, 163 are age 50 or older. The closing also affects 20 employees in Booneville, Miss., who operate a finishing mill for tubing.

More than 100 employees involved in research and development, tool making to support other plants and corporate operations will not lose their jobs, said Jed Deason, chief financial officer.

Production will continue as normal for this time of year, he added, and employees can earn attendance and performance bonuses during their remaining time.

"We want the employees to stay through the end of the production period," Deason said. "We've got work that needs to be done and customers we need to satisfy."

Medical insurance for laid-off Wolverine employees will continue to two months after their last workday. After that, they can pick up coverage known as COBRA for 18 months, though at significantly higher costs.

The company will offer an information fair pertaining to benefits Nov. 19-20 at the Aerospace Building at Calhoun Community College. It will have a job fair at the plant in mid-December and will assist employees with writing resumes and interviewing.

The closing comes after four to five years of struggles to keep smooth-tube production viable, mostly for refrigeration and cooling-system customers. The company has closed or sold other plants, reduced the work force and frozen retirement benefits in recent years.

The Decatur plant had more than 1,000 employees in 1999 but now has fewer than half that number. Stock prices were once higher than $40 but fell below $1 in 2005. Wolverine reported last week that it lost $1.3 million during the third quarter of this year.

Some employees said they blame management for the closing and said paying executives too much added to the company's debt. They also questioned why Wolverine wouldn't re-invest in the plant to make it competitive with companies that modernized.

Mostly, they said the closing hurts because they worked hard and accepted reductions in wages, retirement and vacation benefits — but ended up with nothing.

"I think more people, once they realize what's happened and after a month of looking for another job, that they're a lot better off (without Wolverine)," one of the 21-year employees said. "We've been kicked in the throat so many times, it's unreal."

A company statement to employees said Wolverine must quit making plumbing tube because that market declined 40 percent in the last two years as the product costs increased drastically along with raw-copper prices. The plumbing industry, in turn, switched to plastic tubing, and that trend will continue.

In addition, competitors are converting to newer technology that can produce tubing at lower prices. Because of volatile prices in this market, modernizing to keep pace was too risky an investment, the statement said.

"It has nothing to do with the dedication and hard work by employees at the Decatur facility," Deason said of the closing. He said Wolverine has no plans to re-establish the Decatur production line overseas.

"We spent a great deal of time evaluating a number of alternatives to avoid shutting down the plant," he said. This included Wolverine investing more than $50 million in the plant and finding an investment partner.

"At the end of the day, we just couldn't make those type of investments where you have a payback that makes economic sense for all of Wolverine," Deason said.

Jeremy Nails, president of Morgan County Economic Development Association, said the Wolverine shutdown was unfortunate and promised his organization would do "everything we can" to help laid-off workers find jobs.

"If the property comes available, we'll work with Wolverine like we worked with Solutia (when it downsized) to help them market it and find an alternative use for it," Nails added.

Deason said the company has no plans to sell the riverside property on Market Street Northeast, but would listen to offers if approached by a buyer.

"But our intentions right now are to just mothball the plant," he said.

Wolverine began operating in Decatur in 1948, and when it opened, it was the most modern copper tubing facility in the world. It is Decatur's second oldest non-agricultural industry.

Two years ago, the late John Caddell, who was part of the team that recruited Wolverine, called getting it one of the city's greatest achievements.

"We really thought we'd shot a bear when we got Wolverine," he said.

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