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Tony Davis has built trucks for 26 years -- his entire working life -- in this farming city in the fertile flatlands one hour east of Windsor.

But his job and those of his 2,400 co-workers will disappear next June when the Chicago-based owners of Navistar International Corp. pull up the tent pegs in Chatham and move the plant to low-cost, low-wage Mexico.

The closing will deal a resounding blow to this farm and manufacturing centre of 43,000 people, eliminating more than 5 per cent of the jobs in the city and directly affecting nearly one-quarter of the local population.

Navistar is just the latest in a long line of U.S.-based auto manufacturers that have pulled out of Chatham in recent years, leaving behind a work force that is clearly demoralized.

"There's nothing to keep me here," Mr. Davis said, referring to the city his family has lived in for generations. "I'll probably have to move away. There are no jobs here."

Mr. Davis is resigned to his fate, but many of his fellow workers are just plain angry that a U.S.-based industrial giant would close its only Canadian plant after 93 years as the biggest employer in town.

"We're angry and frustrated," one 25-year veteran said, as he stormed out of the plant at the end of his shift. "It shows that Americans don't care about Canada."

Like many other workers, he cursed Navistar for moving the plant to Mexico, where workers are paid just $4 (U.S.) an hour. "Those Mexican trucks are shit," he claimed. "But they don't care."

He has little hope of finding a job that will equal Navistar's $28 (Canadian) an hour -- if he can find a job at all. "A lot of people will have to move out," he said. "This will be a ghost town."

The hardest-hit workers are the long-term veterans, the 300 workers who are close to retirement after spending most of their working lives at the plant. They will have to retire early, on a partial pension, with a severance of six months' pay in their pocket.

"Where are we going to go when the plant closes?" asked Linda Larue, a middle-aged woman who drops by the plant every day to pick up her husband, a 55-year-old assembly-line worker with diabetes and a history of heart attacks.

"Who's going to hire my husband at his age, with his health problems," she asked. "He won't be able to find a job in Chatham, and we can't leave."

Ms. Larue is working part time at the local hospital, the only job she has been able to get. She is trying for a second part-time job to help pay the bills, but she has no pension, no benefits and not much hope for the future.

The bad news came Thursday when Navistar announced that it will shut the plant early next summer, ending the jobs of 1,000 active employees and 1,200 people currently on layoff.

Company executives met with workers in a tense meeting on Thursday.

"This decision in no way reflects on the performance of our Chatham employees and the quality trucks they build," Steve Keate, president of the company's truck group, told a crowd of jeering, booing workers. "We explored every available option."

The executive said the decision was "irreversible . . . The decision has been made. I never say never, but I wouldn't consider it an option."

Company spokesman Roy Wiley expressed sympathy for the workers in a telephone interview Friday. "We want to be a good corporate citizen," he said, adding that the Chatham workers were building some of the best-quality trucks in North America. "They put their heart and their soul into those trucks. We want to do the right thing for them."

But he offered little hope of keeping the plant open, of jobs elsewhere in Navistar or of raising the severance benefits above the minimum in the union contract. Under that contract, most workers will get one week of salary for every year they have worked.

CAW president Buzz Hargrove came out fighting when he learned of the closing. He told The Chatham Daily News that he is "absolutely furious" about the closing. "It's just a despicable action . . . and it's absolutely unwarranted."

He has already written to Prime Minister Jean Chrétien and Ontario Premier Ernie Eves asking for their help in keeping the plant open, and he called for better severance packages for the workers.

Nearly 300 staff expect to retire by 2004, and he wants them to leave with a full pension.

"We will take every avenue we can to pressure Navistar to stay open," said Joe McCabe, national representative for the CAW in Chatham. "We want a commitment from the government. There doesn't seem to be any fight from the government to keep jobs. That is totally unacceptable."

The reasons for the closing are clear. Navistar has too many plants building too many trucks in a slumping economy.

The Chatham plant has been building only 59 heavy-duty trucks a day, one-third of its capacity, yet the parking lot is full of unsold trucks, rusting in the rain.

Truck sales plummeted during the economic slump in mid-2001. They plunged again after the terrorist attacks in the United States a year ago. And they fell yet again on Oct. 1, when new emissions regulations took effect in the United States.

Those regulations add between $5,000 and $8,000 to the cost of a new truck, giving potential truck buyers one more reason to put their chequebooks away.

"The big truck market is at the lowest point it has been in years," Mr. Wiley said from his office in Chicago, and he sees no sign of it turning up.

Navistar lost $16-million (U.S.) in the third quarter ended July 31 -- its third consecutive quarterly loss. To stem those losses, Navistar is laying off workers at several of its U.S. plants. It is moving many of its operations to a low-cost plant in Mexico, and it is cutting costs wherever it can.

As for Chatham, Navistar offered the workers an ultimatum last summer. Cut plant costs by $28-million a year, or face closing.

That ultimatum was a central theme during a nasty six-week strike last summer that left three workers injured, one critically, when a replacement worker drove through a line of angry pickets.

The strikers refused to take a cut in pay. They knew it was a risky move that could well backfire on them.

"That's the chance you take," Bob Chernicki, CAW's national representative, acknowledged last summer. "People are not going to go back to work for $6 an hour less. It's just not going to happen."

The union argued that labour costs were a non-issue when it came to the bottom line, the sticker price of a truck. Productivity, not wages, is the key, and the union was prepared to give on that.

"Labour is only 8 per cent of the cost of a truck," Mr. McCabe said. "We gave the company extra room in the latest contract. We gave them 25 per cent more productivity."

The closing of the Navistar plant is just the latest in a series of shock waves that have rocked Chatham over the past 20 years.

At one time, Chatham was one of the most prosperous communities in Ontario, where the fertile farmlands and mild climate balanced a vibrant manufacturing sector a short drive from the factories of Windsor and Detroit.

Local farmers made a good living from their tomatoes, beans, fruit, corn and soybeans in the middle of the richest agricultural region in the province. They sold their produce to Libby and Campbell Soup, two major canneries that provided hundreds of jobs for the local people and millions of dollars in economic benefits.

But both those canneries have closed in the past 20 years. The jobs are gone and farmers must truck their produce to bigger, more efficient Ontario plants in London and Leamington.

Chatham was also blessed since the late 1880s with a healthy manufacturing sector that balanced the cycles of agriculture. Navistar's predecessor, International Harvester Co., began building trucks in Chatham in 1909, and Chatham's Gray-Dort automobile company made some of the best cars on the road through the 1920s.

Chatham was able to attract a host of auto part manufacturers because of its work force, pleasant environment and proximity to the automotive centres of Windsor and Detroit.

Big factory buildings sat among the soybean fields, making Fram filters, Eaton-Yale leaf springs, Motorwheel truck wheels, instruments and gasoline tanks. But most of those plants have gone, and those that remain run well below capacity.

Each departure took a bite out of the local economy, but Joe Pavelka, the city's chief administrative officer, said the closing of Navistar will be the most serious yet.

Navistar was paying its workers in Chatham $38-million (Canadian) a year, according to Mr. McCabe, and much of that money would have been spent in local restaurants, car dealerships and supermarkets.

That sum equates to $1,000 in spending for every one of Chatham's 43,000 residents, with economic spinoffs that Mr. Pavelka put at $120-million or more every year. The municipality will lose another $2.5-million in property taxes, parking fees and water bills every year, a significant portion of its annual budget.

"That's a lot of money for a municipality of this size," he said. "It poses a significant problem for Chatham-Kent."

The city is doing what it can to keep the local economy alive.

Mr. Pavelka said city officials are trying to attract new businesses, new manufacturers and even eco-tourists to Chatham. It is building a new commercial park on the edge of town and it has attracted several call-centres.

"We've had some successes," Mr. Pavelka said. "But they won't equal the losses. It's very hard for us to attract somebody who will pay Navistar's wages.

"We can't rely on traditional forms of manufacturing."

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