CHICAGO - "Happy birthday!" shouted ecstatic autoworkers as President Barack Obama took to the podium Aug. 5 at the Ford Chicago Assembly Plant here.
Chicago's favorite son was here to mix birthday celebrations with politics, attending a fundraiser for Democratic Senate hopeful Alexi Giannoulias, and touting the comeback of the U.S. auto industry.
But the thrill and excitement of having the popular president at the factory was tempered by continuing high unemployment figures, and worries that people won't be able to buy the new cars produced.
Earlier Obama visited GM and Chrysler plants in Michigan and said if the federal government hadn't intervened to help save the auto industry, another 1 million jobs would have been lost. He criticized "naysayers" who wanted the auto industry to fail.
The president was alluding to the Republicans, who many say were anxious for the auto industry to go under in order to destroy the United Auto Workers union.
Ford did not take federal bailout money, but the president said if Ford's competitors went down it would have had a detrimental impact on Ford too.
The federal government has helped the company in other ways, the president said. Ford received Department of Energy grants and loans to retool and produce vehicles in accordance with the new national fuel efficiency standards. With that help, Ford invested $400 million in the Chicago plant and said it will create 1,200 new union jobs producing a fuel-efficient SUV - the Ford Explorer - and the Ford Police Interceptor, the next generation of police cars. The plant already produces the Taurus and Lincoln MKS.
Ford also said it has a $5.9 billion credit line for the development of fuel efficient vehicles. The new Explorer is said to have an "eco-boost" engine that will get 20 percent more fuel efficiency and 15 percent reduction in greenhouse gases.
President Obama also announced a $250 million loan from the Export-Import Bank to finance the export of Ford vehicles to other countries.
UAW Local 551 represents 1,400 production workers at the plant here, down from about 3,800 workers in 1992.
On Aug. 5, the production floor was full of male and female workers of every size, shape and color excited about the president's visit. Many sported Obama T-shirts, while others wore shirts bearing Ford and UAW logos, or decked themselves out in red, white and blue.
"It was an honor and a great day - some people even said the greatest day of their life - to have the president at our workplace," said Local 551 President Carlo Bishop. "How many other people can say the president visited them at their job?"
Bishop captured the pride, optimism and excitement of these workers.
Mzjenny Guyton with 17 years in the plant who works in quality control said it was a "blessing" to have the president. "I think I can speak for all of us in 551 to say it's an honor and privilege for us. We are excited that jobs are opening up."
Guyton, like many of the other workers, spoke passionately about her job. "Safety and quality are number one and two," she said.
"It's been an uphill fight," said electrician Eugene Golston, who has worked 15 years at the plant. "We're able to do five different vehicles at one time. Before it was two at a time, and it took six months to a year for the change over. Now it's just a matter of months."
This kind of rise in worker productivity has helped to push up Ford's - and GM's and Chrysler's - profit margins. The automaker posted a $2.6 billion second quarter profit, up $338 million from the same period a year earlier.
Wage and retiree concessions by the UAW also helped to fuel Ford's soaring profits. The 1,200 new hires will start at $14 an hour, as opposed to the previous $28 an hour for new hires.
Ford says the added shift will also create 600 other Chicago-area jobs in parts suppliers - also UAW jobs.
The company says it is "on track to in-source 1,975 hourly jobs to Ford plants by 2012, exceeding [word missing] pledge to the UAW by more than 25 percent."
Ford worker David Schoenecker remembers hiring in at $3.56 an hour some 34 years ago. "It's looking a heckuva lot better now," he said. "I've been through at least two other downturns but I'm very optimistic now."
"We build Ford tough," said KK Evans, 18 years at the plant. "We take pride in building these cars. We are on the up now and it feels good."
Evan's friend Ida Henderson Small said she feels the economy is coming back and people will be buying those cars UAW workers take pride in building. She pointed to a new auto mall in her hometown Matteson, Ill., as an example.
Yet there were thousands who had lined up to get the applications for those 1,200 new Ford jobs. The company ran out of application forms at some locations, leaving people standing in line angry and disappointed. Perhaps a signal of the job desperation was seen at the assembly plant, where a handmade sign on the security shack entrance read, "Not hiring."
When one worker was asked if the assembly plant could make train cars for hi-speed rail someday, he answered, "Sure. We can make anything. We even made tanks during WWII."
Photo: President Obama addresses about 2,000 people at Chicago's Ford plant, Aug. 5. (Teresa Albano/PW)