ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH
For about 1,500 workers at Chrysler's South Assembly Plant in Fenton, the grim reality finally hit when a 2009 Dodge Grand Caravan rolled off the assembly line early Wednesday afternoon — and another didn't follow.
The white Grand Caravan was the last vehicle built before production idled, marking the beginning of an uncertain future for the plant's work force and the 49-year-old plant as well. For the workers, the plant's shutdown means not only the loss of high-paying jobs, but a sense of closeness with one another that won't be easy to replace.
"It was pretty emotional out there today," said United Auto Workers Local 110 President Joe Shields, whose local represents workers at the minivan facility. "It's like losing your family."Four months ago, slumping sales forced Chrysler to announce it would idle indefinitely the minivan plant by the end of October and lay off its workers, who build the Grand Caravan, Caravan cargo van and an export version of the Chrysler Town & Country.
Since then, Chrysler's fortunes have fallen even further as the economy worsened. The sales slump deepened, and the automaker reportedly has been considering a merger with General Motors Corp. Chrysler still says it has no plans to restart production at the Fenton minivan plant. Now, the number of local Chrysler assembly jobs left drops to about 1,100, all in the neighboring pickup plant.
Hours after the Grand Caravan left the line, the prospect of lost jobs weighed heavily on workers.
These were jobs that provided good paychecks, paid for children's colleges and offered security.
"It's something where you knew the next day would come, and you'd have a job," said James Funke, 42, of High Ridge, a trim worker employed by Chrysler for nearly 14 years.
STAY OR GO
Laid-off workers will get state unemployment and supplemental unemployment benefits provided by Chrysler for up to 48 weeks. Once they've exhausted these benefits, workers will return to Chrysler's payroll and enter the "Jobs Bank" program for up to two years. There they will wait for work or a chance to transfer to another Chrysler plant.
Under the most recent UAW labor contract, Chrysler workers can receive up to four offers to transfer, according to a union official. On the final offer, workers either must accept or are dropped from the payroll.
Trim worker Tyron Cross, 56, of St. Louis, hopes he can continue to work for the automaker until 2014, when he'll have 20 years of service and be eligible for a larger retirement package. He has worked at Fenton for almost 14 years.
Still, many workers don't want to wait around. They're looking for another job — or even career.
Some will take either retirement or severance offers, which Chrysler spokesman Ed Saenz said will be made next month.
Eureka resident Steve Ridenhour, 39, plans to return to school. Ridenhour, a 15-year Chrysler worker, said he wants to earn an associate's degree in building maintenance and find another job outside the auto industry.
"I've got a family. I've got a mortgage," he said.
And Funke said he plans to start his own business, a coin shop to be called High Ridge Coin.
But in this struggling economy, finding comparable work won't be easy.
"It's tough for an autoworker to transition to another industry and be able to make up the wages and benefits they were making in the auto industry," said Russ Signorino, a labor market analyst with United Way of Greater St. Louis.
The assembly plant workers aren't the only ones hurt by the plant idling.
Based on the "multiplier effect," every one auto plant job creates another two indirect jobs, ranging from catering to auto suppliers, Signorino said. An additional 1½ jobs — in restaurants and other businesses close to the plant — also depend on the spending by the autoworkers and suppliers.
So when auto assembly jobs are lost, the other jobs are in jeopardy unless those businesses find different clients, Signorino said.
Integram-St. Louis Seating, a facility in Pacific that builds minivan seats, and Dakkota Integrated Systems, which makes dashboards and door panels at a plant in west St. Louis County, haven't been able to recoup the loss of the minivan business. Both facilities are laying off workers, said Darin Gilley, president of UAW Local 1760, which represents workers at both supplier plants.
The St. Louis area has lost a steady stream of auto industry jobs in the last 30 years.
Auto employment totaled nearly 30,000 in the late 1970s, dropped to 15,000 in 1996 and fell even more to 7,300 a year ago, Signorino said.
Last year, the minivan plant operated on two production shifts. But Chrysler already had plans to cut one of the shifts because minivan sales were falling.
Sales soon sank further. At the end of 2007, combined sales of the Dodge Grand Caravan and Chrysler Town & Country were down 15 percent from a year ago. That came after a 9 percent decline in 2006, according to Automotive News data.
When one shift was eliminated at the start of this year, about 1,080 workers were laid off. At the end of June, Chrysler said it would cut the remaining shift, idle the plant and consolidate all minivan production to a Canadian plant in Windsor, Ontario.
Chrysler has said the Windsor plant is its primary minivan operation, and the Fenton plant has been used for overflow when minivan demand was high. Fenton has been building minivans since 1987.
Since that announcement, workers have lobbied to stave off the plant's shutdown.
Their most elaborate effort was a trip in August to Auburn Hills, Mich. About 500 people, mostly minivan plant workers, rallied outside Chrysler's headquarters. Many wore red or white T-shirts emblazoned with the slogan "Build them where you sell them."
Shields said workers still haven't given up hope for restarting production at the plant. The union set up an online petition to rally community support and lobby for the minivan plant.
What could be hopeful, officials said, is the plant's flexible manufacturing capability. A year ago, Chrysler spent heavily to retool the minivan plant. The plant now can produce multiple vehicles off the same production line.
"We're going to keep going," said Lew Moye, Local 110's shop chairman. "Chrysler is supposed to have seven new vehicles in the pipeline (by 2010), and they have not chosen where they are going to build (them). ... This plant is capable of tooling up for these vehicles."
However, Chrysler's Saenz said the automaker didn't foresee just how strained the auto industry would become this year. It had to make tough decisions that included the idling.
Under the current union contract, Chrysler can only idle — not close — the plant. It would have to negotiate a closure with the UAW in 2011, when the current contract expires.
For now, Saenz said, "we don't have any plans to bring new vehicles into the plant."
And analysts have been skeptical that the plant will ever reopen. Chrysler still has excess production capacity, said Haig Stoddard, an auto industry analyst for IHS Global Insight.
"If (Chrysler) put another product in there, all they would be doing is closing another plant elsewhere," he said.
And a merger between Chrysler and GM or another automaker would likely lead to cuts in the number of makes and models, plant closures and layoffs, according to analysts.