FOND DU LAC — Days after Mercury Marine officials announced the Fond du Lac plant will close and consolidate much of its operations in Stillwater, Okla., community members are in shock and the ripples of concern have only begun to take effect.

The International Associations of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, Local 1947, said its 850 members voted overwhelmingly Sunday, Aug. 23 to reject Mercury Marine’s offer to rework a four-year labor contract. The concessions included lower wages for new hires and employees called back from layoffs.

Throughout the week that followed, union leaders and Mercury officials met several times but, because the union did not vote again before a midnight Saturday, Aug. 29 deadline imposed by Mercury Marine, company officials affirmed their plans to close the Fond du Lac plant.

Mercury Marine employs approximately 1,000 people and plans to operate the Fond du Lac plant under terms of the existing contract, which expires in 2012.

In addition to the impact on the 850 employees and their families, the plant closing will ripple throughout Fond du Lac and neighboring communities admitted Fr. Victor Capriolo, pastor of Holy Family Parish.

“We have over 300 parishioners employed at Mercury and at least another half-dozen smaller companies that will be affected,” he said. “The majority of their businesses are directly related to Mercury Marine. The smaller businesses will be affected adversely immediately and this will have a humungous impact on our parish income and our school system as well.”

A recent merger between Holy Family School and St. Mary Springs High School looked promising as enrollment was up to 700, the first increase in years, but with the closure looking imminent, Fr. Capriolo worries that parents will move their children into the public education system.

“Additionally, we are the fourth phase of the archdiocese’s Faith in our Future campaign and had been just talking about that,” he said. “Our projected goal was supposed to be $2.7 million and well, good luck. It is not looking good right now.”

While parishioners are waiting to see if the jobs in the community can be retained, Fr. Capriolo is in discussion with Holy Family staff to schedule a prayer service to give comfort, hope and direction to the community.

“The impact is greater than most people realize because it will affect restaurants, hotels, and other suppliers,” he said. “And with the economy in such bad shape, St. Vincent de Paul and the Salvation Army are already stretched to the max. There is talk that we will be the next Flint, Mich., or Janesville and it is a kind of gloomy atmosphere.”

Jerry Sullivan, St. Vincent de Paul conference president, agreed and said that the organization is already seeing people in need who have never required assistance.

“We are going to have to be very careful with funding if this closure happens,” he said. “Chances are that people who contributed to our funding in the past won’t be able to do so any longer. This is a tight time for us and it not only impacts our conference and county but smaller communities and farm communities will be touched by this as well.”

Despite concerns, Fr. Pat Heppe, archdiocesan vicar for clergy and former longtime pastor of Holy Family Parish, said that Fond du Lac residents are an impressive community who are accustomed to pulling together during tough times.

“This is a difficult time for the community, not only for the workers, but for all the related industries that feed into the city and it is a big issue,” he said. “I got a letter from an elderly lady the other day who said, ‘Things don’t look good when you read the contract, it is plain to see why things went the way they did. Imagine being told to go home and then being called back and told that you will be making less money than you did before?’”

“They will get out of this and they will make it – they are a community who sticks together and they have active community
leaders with vision,” Fr. Heppe said. “Look at what happened in Kenosha and it is not a ghost town. Whatever happens with Fond du Lac, they will not only get through it, but they will survive and prosper.”

Editor’s note: As your Catholic Herald went to press, reports broke that another union vote would take place Thursday or Friday.