ELKHART — More than 125 Gunite Corp. workers left their jobs behind forever Friday.
And some left their boots.
By 3 p.m. Friday, more than half a dozen workers at the manufacturing plant chose to leave their boots dangling from the barb wire fence that lines the perimeter of the plant at the corner of Middlebury Street and C.R. 15.
It was time to hang it up, said Bill Stanton Jr., who worked at the plant for 25 years.
Stanton and his sister, Beverly Lopez, who worked at the plant for 24 years, both headed out the door shortly after 3 p.m. Friday, tied the laces together and flung their battered boots onto the fence before joining others at the employee entrance for final hugs and goodbyes.
Getting rid of the boots, they said, had more to do with closure than a protest.
“It’s a sad day after being here for 25 years” Stanton said as his voice choked with emotion.
“We were looking to retire from this place,” Lopez said.
Both live just north of the Michigan state line and worked as machine operators at the plant. Their father retired from the company recently.
On Friday, there was other “family” inside the building they were leaving behind.
“Saying goodbye to all our friends — that’s the hardest thing,” Stanton said.
The plant closing came after years of speculation and worry as the company struggled through a recession and growing overseas competition.
In 2010, the company, which manufacturers wheel components, initially announced plans to close the factory, but remained open after orders picked up.
In July, company officials announced the plant would close in early 2013 and that operations would be shifted to company headquarters in Rockford, Ill.
When the plant closing was announced in July, the company had 210 employees.
The closure was pushed up to Friday because of declining orders and revenues.
Five salaried employees were able to transfer to other properties within the parent company, Accuride Corp., based in Evansville, said Timothy Weir, director of communications for Accuride.
“Part of the problem we had on the hourly side is that other plants were cutting their own workforce in response to lower production, so there really weren’t other places for the workers to go,” Weir said.
The company has been hurt by inexpensive overseas competition, he said.
But in recent months, the company saw declining orders because of an excess inventory in the trucking industry, he said.
As a result, Accuride took additional steps to cut costs, including a 14 percent salary reduction across the board in early October, he said.
“It really was about keeping the company viable, and consolidating under one roof is the only way we could do it,” Weir said.
Meanwhile, outside of the employee entrance, the mood was eerily lighthearted shortly after noon.
A sign above the door celebrated the company’s 150-year existence as workers exchanged handshakes, smiles and hugs. Some took photos while others took time to razz each other the same way they had done for years.
Workers from the day shift who normally left at 3 p.m. were told by management that they could leave beginning at noon.
Chris McDonald, a machine operator who drove to work from his home in Sturgis, Mich., for 28 years, took up the offer to leave early.
He said the speculation about job security during the past six years had left him emotionally drained.
He was ready to go.
McDonald said he plans to relax for a few weeks before starting to look for a new job and sounded somewhat optimistic.
“There’s quite a few guys in here that have found jobs already,” McDonald said. “For some reason, they want people from here with our experience.
“Hopefully, it will be a blessing for all of us,” he said.