Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Windsor has a lot riding on success of 2008 minivans

WINDSOR -- Chrysler LLC's new minivans, which officially launch today, are important to the newly independent automaker, of course, but they might mean even more to the people of Windsor.

The Canadian Auto Workers union, which has lost an estimated 25,000 to 30,000 members in the past eight years, sees the launch as hope that 4,600 jobs at the Windsor Assembly Plant will be secure for a few years.

"A lot of people's hopes are pinned on this particular vehicle," said Matt Fischer, chief executive of the Windsor Essex Development Commission.

He estimated that the Windsor area has lost 5,400 auto industry jobs in the past five years and will lose another 3,400 this year and next.

Chrysler's restructuring has already resulted in 680 retirements from the Windsor plant.

Windsor's future has been tied with that of the Detroit Three since Henry Ford crossed the border and set up shop roughly 100 years ago. And like Detroit, the city has been hit hard by the advances that Asian automakers, such as Toyota Motor Corp., have made in the North American market.

"It's very, very critical for our membership and our union," said CAW President Buzz Hargrove of the new minivan. "It's a segment of the market that's been very, very successful over the years, and I'd hate to see it just go to the importers."

Meanwhile, Ontario as a whole is doing much better, in large part because of its ability to attract automakers such as Toyota. The province produced 2.5 million vehicles last year, compared with 2.3 million in Michigan, according to Ward's AutoInfoBank.

Dennis DesRosiers, an industry analyst with DesRosiers Automotive Consultants Inc., estimated that while the CAW has lost auto jobs, Canada has picked up 50,000 nonunion jobs. He expects an extra 3,000 to 5,000 new assembly line jobs when Toyota opens a plant in Ontario next year.

"One of the reasons Michigan is in so much trouble is because it spent 30 years bad-mouthing the Japanese, supporting its homegrown companies: GM, Ford and Chrysler," he said. "Because we've been so neutral in the politics in the industry in the last 30 years, all of the foreign-owned companies have come to respect Canada as being that neutral player and put us on their lists."

One advantage, he added, is Canada's national health care system.

"We still had to prove ourselves," he said. "But we're competitive."

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