April 9, 2009 at 3:37 pm

Charlie LeDuff: Travels with Charlie

Selling off America's manufacturing might, a factory at a time

The last remnants of the Automotive Components Holdings plant in Ypsilanti, which made parts for Visteon and Ford, are being stripped out. (Max Ortiz/The Detroit News)

Ypsilanti -- You can now watch the liquidation of the American Dream in real time.

Any given week, the guts of a whole factory are auctioned off. Its contents are sold piece by piece and taken away for scrap or antiques or resale to foreign companies. Men with blowtorches and trucks haul off tool-and-die machines, aluminum siding, hoists, drinking fountains, salt and pepper shakers, anything that might be of some value. It is the removal of the country's mechanical heart right before your eyes. It is breathtaking.

"Everyone in our generation from the Midwest ought to see this," said Cooper Suter, a 44-year-old unemployed carpenter from Toledo who has turned to scrapping factories to make ends meet. "It kind of sums up life in the Rust Belt."

More than a dozen factory auctions have been held over the past six months in Michigan alone. On a recent morning, Suter and his sidekick, Rick Phillips, a 25-year-old former steelyard worker, were mining the last remnants of the Automotive Components Holdings plant, which made alternators and windshield wiper motors for Visteon and Ford. Men like Suter call themselves the cockroaches, the crumb snatchers, the last people in the factory before the metal scrappers come.

ACH is a temporary company owned by Ford Motor Co. whose sole purpose is to sell or shut down 17 former Visteon Corp. plants. In its heyday, the factory employed 3,800 people.

It closed in December, leaving 500 people to wonder how they will pay the banker, the dean, the grocer.

The floors are still wet with oil, the locker rooms still smell of men. It is said that Henry Ford used to walk this factory when he acquired it in 1932. But that is all a fading memory.

"The finality of these closings; these plants, the sites, the jobs, the paychecks, the industry, they aren't coming back," said Suter, a father of three, the son of a college professor who never went to college himself. He gambled on the working class life and lost.

"Will the U.S. ever be a pre-eminent manufacturer again?" he asked himself before answering his question with a question. "Will the skilled trades that were in these plants ever come back? What if we need them?"

Suter inspects a work bench and puzzles over the career of the man who once labored over it. Where has he gone? What will he do now? What will the country do with the rapid deindustrialization of the country and at least two of the Big Three teetering on the verge of bankruptcy.

"People who are my age have no idea what they are going to do," Suter said, trying to angle a workbench into his trailer. "How they are going to live on $12 an hour without benefits when we're used to $29 with benefits? You can't make an economy on cleaning somebody else's shirts or selling mutual funds. What are towns like Ypsilanti going to do?"

Ypsilanti is not the most besieged city in Michigan, but is an auto town, and its problems mirror those of the larger industrial Midwest. Just four square miles and 35 miles west of Detroit, it has lost more than 25 percent of its population since 1970. Schools have closed, as did its two other auto-related plants. Outside the Visteon plant, located on Factory Street in Ypsilanti alongside Interstate 94 and Ford Lake, the building that housed the UAW Local 849 is for sale.

Remember that Rose Will Monroe -- aka Rosie the Riveter -- worked at the Willow Run Aircraft factory in Ypsilanti during World War II. That was another time. Another generation.

"It's the last big auto-related plant in Ypsilanti," said Paul Schrieber, the city's mayor said of the Visteon plant. "The changeover from the old is complete."

Nearly done, but not quite. Not before the scroungers and scrappers finish their work and only when they are done will the roaring factory become a silent mausoleum.

This morning there were Suter and Phillips. There was a man named Thomas, who used to work for General Motors, and now collects scrap to make ends meet. There was Bob, the $29-an-hour union man pushing around a broom with one hand. There was the custodian, vacuuming the foyer and arranging the chairs as if he were expecting company.

Suter was cleaning out a tool shed that might have some resale value to some yuppie who collects such things. He pulled out a bound contract from 2000 between the UAW and The Company.

He read from Article V Section 1: "The Union reaffirms its adherence to the principle of a fair day's work for a fair day's pay, and agrees to use its best efforts toward this end ..."

"If only everybody would have lived up to their end of the bargain," he said.

And then he tossed the contract in the garbage.

Travels With Charlie charlie@detnews.com">charlie@detnews.com (313) 222-2710 Travels With Charlie appears each Thursday in The Detroit News.

Cooper Suter, 44, and Rick Phillips, 25, stand in the empty factory ... (Max Ortiz/The Detroit News)
Men with trucks haul off anything that might be of some value: machines, ... (Max Ortiz/The Detroit News)