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The Star-Ledger

Divorced Father Of 2 Is A Reluctant Transfer


February 26, 2004
Copyright ©2004 The Star-Ledger. All rights reserved.

Freddie Valez began assembling vehicles long before he knew about the Ford plant in Edison.

"When I was 12, I really wanted a bike, but my mother couldn't afford it," Valez, 40, remembers. "So we found a bike frame on the street and took it home. Then I got rims and all the other parts, and put it together. I guess I was working assembly back when I was a kid."

Today, the last trucks are scheduled to roll off the assembly line after a 56-year manufacturing run.

Valez and close to 800 assembly-line workers will have reported to work for the last time.

Like many of his colleagues, Valez decided to transfer to one of Ford's other plants spread throughout the country.

"I'm going to Maumee, Ohio," said Valez, who lives in Edison.

Unlike the families set to face the move together, this divorced father faced an agonizing decision.

If he stayed, he would be out of a job. If he left, he would be far from his children.

"They don't want me to go," Valez said of his children, Gabrielle, 12, and Christopher, 8.

"They ask me if I can find a job in New Jersey," Valez said. "But I tell them that for them to continue having the things they have, I must go away."

Clearly saddened by the thought of living far from his children, Valez shrugs his shoulders.

"Their mother, Nilza, is a flight attendant," he said. "So the kids can travel less expensively. They want to visit me in Ohio."

Valez said he and Nilza Zavala divorced five years ago, and Valez said he spends every other weekend with his children. He takes them to movies, bowling or roller-skating.

"I got married when I joined the military," Valez said. "We got married too young. It seemed like the right thing to do -- we were high school sweethearts."

Though he is unsure of his exact job or where he will live in Ohio, Valez is determined to remain a father to Gabrielle and Christopher.

"I'm not going to lose touch with my children," Valez said.

His own father moved back to Puerto Rico when Valez was about 8 years old.

"Being that I grew up without a father, I missed out," Valez said. "I make it a point that I won't let that happen with my children."

Valez was born in Perth Amboy after his parents moved to New Jersey from Puerto Rico.

Valez said he -- as well as his sister and two brothers -- spoke Spanish growing up in Perth Amboy.

"There were a lot of different Hispanics," Valez said. "Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, Cubans."

His mother, Maria Gonzalez, 63, still lives in Perth Amboy.

Though he said he and the neighborhood kids got into some mischief when he was growing up, Valez credits his mother with keeping him out of trouble.

"My mother was always vigilant," Valez said. "I give my mother credit, being a single parent living in the area that we were living at. It was the projects."

Valez said his favorite classes at Perth Amboy High School -- where he also played football -- were computers and Spanish. But academics didn't capture his young mind as much as the mechanics of how things worked.

After one semester at Middlesex Community College studying business, Valez decided to join the Air Force.

"I was 20 years old and my mother knew that once I joined the military, I'd be okay," he said.

All that childhood tinkering came in handy.

"I was always good with my hands, so I studied to be an airplane mechanic," Valez said.

After serving three years in England, Valez moved back to the United States and was stationed in Myrtle Beach, S.C.

But the economy was not on his side.

"All the airlines were going bankrupt in the late 1980s," Valez said. "So I got a job with a company that made microchips."

His father-in-law, Gonzalo Zavala, asked him if he wanted to apply at the Ford plant in Edison, and soon Valez was back at his childhood hobby of parts assembly. Zavala worked at Ford for 30 years and retired three years ago.

"My first day at work, I didn't know what to expect," Valez said. "I had those jitters in me."

Soon, Valez learned how to assemble the steering column -- perhaps a little too well.

"It's very repetitive," Valez said of the line work. "Day in, day out, 10 hours a day more than 300 days a year."

Besides the mental strain of the job, Valez -- who was 29 when he started -- said it was also physically demanding.

"The first week, my hands were killing me," Valez said. "I never used my hands like that before. And always on my feet, I got exhausted."

Eventually, Valez said he adjusted.

"After a while, your body becomes used to it," he said. "You try to pass the time, maybe listen to music, some hip-hop, some R&B."

Another aspect of the assembly line that makes the job more bearable, according to Valez, is the close contact with colleagues.

"You work with the same people and get accustomed to their behavior," Valez said. "You spend as much time with them as you do your family. I made a lot of friends."

Before the talks of an official shutdown began in 2002, Valez said he helped organize a basketball league at the plant.

"Each department had their own team -- Chassis vs. Trim, Body Shop vs. Paint," Valez said. "With that league, everybody got really close. Imagine, we're with them on our day off, too!"

Since 2002, Valez has been off the line and working as a union committee person -- a liaison between the management and the workers on the factory floor, solving problems such as getting the tools they need. Valez was able to use his Spanish-language skills at the plant assisting workers who didn't speak English well.

Now, that job is over and Valez does not know yet what he will do at the plant in Ohio. Part of the transition will be salved by the presence of his girlfriend, Trina Hill, who also worked at the Edison plant and is transferring to Ohio.

"We work hard at our plant," Valez said, angry at the shutdown. "For them to make a business decision and close down our plant -- that was hard to swallow."

Like many workers transferring, retiring or going on unemployment, Valez knows he is powerless in the face of the corporate bottom line.

"That was a business decision and we don't make business decisions," he said. "We make trucks."

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