Chrysler workers looking for hope

World has changed since happy days of 2005

April 07, 2007|By Christopher Boyce | Christopher Boyce,St. Louis Post-Dispatch

ST. LOUIS -- While much of the auto industry is fixated on who is visiting Chrysler Group's headquarters in Auburn Hills, Mich., workers at its South Assembly plant in Fenton, Mo., are closely watching visitors in their own workplace.

Trailers from Overland, Mo.-based Alberici Constructors, which is involved in retooling the South Assembly facility, are occupying part of the employees' parking lot.

Workers are looking for any change in the pace of Alberici's work as they wonder whether Chrysler will follow through on a long-term plan to retool and modernize local operations.

Much has changed since the U.S. automaker announced in December 2005 that it would invest up to $1 billion in Fenton, where about 5,200 people assemble pickups and minivans.

Chrysler is losing money and plans to shed about 1,935 jobs from the South plant and the adjacent North Assembly plant in coming years. And its German parent, DaimlerChrysler AG, is considering a sale of the beleaguered U.S. automaker.

So where does that leave the plant employees?

"I think they're scared to death," said Glenn Woemmel, president of United Auto Workers union Local 110. Stories about potential buyers for Chrysler and the news last month that the job cuts would be deeper than first announced have left workers unsettled, he said.

Sensing the apprehension, Chrysler has been communicating frequently via plant announcements, e-mail and even video messages.

Among the messages are tips from Terry Lyles' book Good Stress on "how to maintain peak performance in uncertain times."

Woemmel said the only good news so far has been Chrysler's repeated affirmation that it will stick to its plan to upgrade the facilities in Fenton.

But even that reassurance was shaken when the delivery of some equipment for the South plant's retooling project was rejected last month, workers told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Chrysler spokeswoman Michele Tinson confirmed that particular delivery was delayed, but she said the company was still on track to idle the plant in late May and begin upgrades.

In February, Chrysler announced the loss of 1,300 jobs as part of a plan to eliminate one of the two shifts at the South plant next year. About 300 jobs would be lost this year, and 1,000 more cuts would come in the second quarter when the shift is ended.

Once the retooling is completed, the South plant's workers are to begin making the redesigned 2008 line of minivans this fall.

Not all workers are flinching at the rumors and talk of a pending sale. Jeff Kennamann, who says he is accustomed to seesaw battles between the UAW and Chrysler, believes most of the recent news is posturing ahead of this summer's labor negotiations.

Even so, Kennamann - who installs door glass on Ram pickups - regularly logs onto news Web sites to read about the latest Chrysler speculation.

Like other local workers, Kennamann is eligible to receive a bonus of $100,000 if he voluntarily leaves his job and all its uncertainty. The automaker is offering voluntary severance and retirement packages to trim its work force in Fenton.

Kennamann, 44, believes he's better off working until he can retire - even if that's 14 years away. Despite the risk, the promise of a stable retirement is more attractive than the buyout offer he received in the mail last week.

But he wouldn't recommend his path to everyone.

"If I had been working five years or less, I'd take the money and get the hell out of there and not think twice about it," said Kennamann, who has worked at the North plant for 11 years.

Workers worry that a cost-cutting buyer may reconsider Chrysler's commitment to invest in Fenton.

The common belief is that any private equity firm would want to work with a much slimmer version of the Chrysler Group, said Laurie Harbour-Felax, president of the Harbour-Felax Group, an operational consulting firm in Royal Oak, Mich., focused on the automotive supply base.

Any buyer is unlikely to make a deal that includes carrying the tab for the UAW's legacy costs, such as retiree health benefits and hefty pensions, Harbour-Felax said.

Disbelieving union members should take the company's current actions seriously, Harbour-Felax said, referring to the potential buyers who have traveled to Chrysler's headquarters to view financial records and future vehicles.

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