Fighting Closure in Connecticut

(Stacey A. McCarthy)
Guy Campanile, is the business producer for the CBS Evening News

Estella and Mike Pesapane have been punching the clock at the Pratt and Whitney engine centerin Cheshire, Connecticut for 30 years. It's a highly skilled job requiring disassembly and rebuilding of massive jet turbines with thousands of parts.

"Building jet engines was the only thing I ever wanted to do", according to Mike Pesapane. He says he first fell in love with aerospace while he served in the military.

"I'm just mechanically inclined."

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Until very recently the Pesapane's figured they had their financial future mapped out. Their self-built home is nearly paid off. The only modest extravagances are the colorful plaques, sculptures and posters Estella collects of crescent moons. Retirement looked like it was only a decade away.

But last July, Pratt and Whitney announced they were going to close their repair facility in Cheshire and a smaller repair center in East Hartford. One thousand workers will lose their jobs, including Estella and Mike. The Pesapanes are the kind of well paid and long tenured workers that have become most vulnerable in recent years to permanent job loss. Finding employment alternatives for them poses a remarkable challenge for them and the economy as a whole.

"They're (Pratt and Whitney) leaving after they took the best years of my life. Now I got to start another career at the bottom again," asks Mike Pesapane.

Pratt and Whitney is owned by United Technologies Corporation.UTC is the largest single employer in Connecticut. The company cut 15,000 workers in 2009 and has said that it can save more than $50 million a year moving the 1000 repair jobs at Cheshire and East Hartford to facilities in Georgia, Singapore and Japan. The union workers in Connecticut earn between $40,000 and $90,000 a year. The labor costs in Singapore are about half of the cost in Connecticut.

"It's difficult to go out into the job market at our age", said Estella Pesapane as she nursed a cup of coffee at her kitchen table. "There are no more manufacturing jobs left in the United States."

More than 2 million manufacturing jobs have been lost since the Great Recession began. Connecticut unemployment claims are up 40% compared to 2008.

The transfer of the engine repair work to Asia has been especially difficult for the workers at Cheshire to accept. They insist there is no better trained and experienced group of engine technicians in the world. They are also puzzled about the timing of the July's announcement.

"We posted record profits and productivity at Cheshire in June", said Machinist union president Wayne McCarthy. "We could not believe it when they said they would close us down."

United Technologies Corporation is defending the move by arguing that most of the future growth in air travel will be in Asia. The company insists it makes little financial sense to transport massive jet engines from Asian half way around the world for repairs in central Connecticut.

"Every reasonable option to preserve work in Connecticut was fully explored," according to a Pratt and Whitney statement given to CBS News. "We believe the difficult decisions made by Pratt & Whitney will best position the company to serve our customers and help ensure our long-term viability."

Mike Pesapane is not buying it. "All my experience, what am I going to do with it? I got to start all over? I got to go back to school," asks Mike Pesapane. "I'm too young to retire and too old to hire."

UTC planned to close the Cheshire plant by the summer but there's a new obstacle. The machinists union has filed a federal lawsuit alleging that Pratt and Whitney violated their agreement with the union by not making every reasonable effort to keep the plant open.

"The state of Connecticut offered millions in incentives for them to stay", points out McCarthy.

The trial began in Bridgeport, Connecticut just before Christmas inside a brown paneled room that is uncomfortably cold in temperature and atmosphere. On the left side of the room there is a dozen Pratt and Whitney lawyers and executives neatly clad in dark blue suits. To the right are about two dozen Cheshire and East Hartford workers wearing denim and union jackets. The aisle between the two sides might as well be as wide as the Atlantic Ocean.

"There's going to be a lot of people losing their jobs when our plant closes", said Estella Pesapane as she waited for court to resume after a recess on the second day of arguments. "There's a thousand of us but there's a ton of people who work around our plant, like restaurants and stores. That's at least another 4,000 people. People don't think about this kind of stuff unless it happens to them. People need to pay attention to what's happening in this country."

Then Estella motioned over to the Pratt and Whitney executive on the other side of the aisle.

"Just wait and see. One day their jobs will get outsourced too."

The judge in the case is expected to rule by the end of the month. If nothing else, the trial will probably delay any closing until 2011. Observers say a surprise union victory could become a rallying point for other Americans facing job loss.

Mike Pesapane is trying to stay optimistic but it's not easy. He's spent a lot of time thinking about what's next. His preference is a job that gives him peace of mind?

"All I've been thinking about the last six months is what to do. The only one I could possibly think of now is a small grass cutting business. That way I don't have to worry about a corporation telling me - I don't need you anymore", he said half-joking.

Estella is taking a more academic approach. She's planning to get a doctorate degree. She already has an idea fro her dissertation.

"I really think my it might be on where future jobs are coming from. Nobody seems to know the answer", she said.

For more on this story, check out Where America Stands, on the CBS Evening News with Katie Couric, tonight.