Thursday, December 4, 2008

Chrysler exec visits Toledo, touts electric Jeep

Jeep workers pay attention as Tom LaSorda explains why the auto industry needs billions from the government soon.

With the Jeep Wrangler assembly line behind him and nearly 300 hourly workers in front, Chrysler LLC Vice Chairman and President Tom LaSorda led a rally in Toledo yesterday to drum up support for the U.S. auto industry's request for $34 billion in federal money.

Mr. LaSorda also revealed to The Blade that, if the federal aid is approved, an electric-drive Jeep Wrangler would be built at the Toledo Jeep Assembly complex.

A prototype of the vehicle, which gets the equivalent of 50 miles to the gallon and has a range of about 400 miles, was on display at the rally.

The rally, quickly put together by Chrysler, is part of actions Chrysler, General Motors Corp., and Ford Motor Co. were taking nationwide to generate support for the federal aid. Chrysler is seeking $7 billion.


Mr. LaSorda called upon Jeep workers to contact Ohio's 18-member congressional delegation and urge support for the request.

Bruce Baumhower, president of United Auto Workers Local 12, which represents workers at Toledo Jeep, said at the rally that the union had targeted about 10 congressmen in Ohio for an e-mail and letter-writing campaign.

At union meetings, workers have been enthusiastic about participating, Mr. Baumhower added.

"Sometimes we get 30 people, sometimes 300 attend, but we have gotten good response," Mr. Baumhower said. "Our guys understand that this is a crisis."

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During the rally, Toledo Mayor Carty Finkbeiner and U.S. Rep. Marcy Kaptur made clear that as the automakers suffer, so too do their workers and the communities they live in, and that some in Congress seem reluctant to help the auto industry.

The banking industry asked Congress for help and quickly got $700 billion, Miss Kaptur said. "And they didn't even have to provide any evidence" of their plight, she said.

Mr. LaSorda said lawmakers need to understand that Chrysler, Ford Motor Co., and General Motors Corp. don't want a handout.

"Let's be clear, we're asking for a loan, and we're going to pay it back," he said.

Automakers have said they need the total of $34 billion to fund daily operations and new product development.

Without the aid, the industry's survival is in doubt and the communities it supports are in serious trouble, auto executives have said.

Tom LaSorda said the electric-drive Wrangler, on display during the rally at Toledo Supplier Park, would be built at the Jeep Assembly complex if the $34 billion federal bailout passes.

At the request of congressmen, Chrysler, GM, and Ford submitted their business plans this week, hearings before lawmakers are supposed to start today, and a vote on the requested aid is expected next week.

Chrysler told Congress it plans 24 major product launches between 2009 and 2012.

Asked after his speech at the Toledo rally whether any of those vehicles would be made in Toledo, Mr. LaSorda turned to glance at the shiny white Jeep EV - electric vehicle - prototype and said, "One is right there."

Chrysler unveiled three electric prototypes in September, including the Jeep EV, a minivan, and a sports car. But officials at that time said only one would be produced by 2010 and they declined to reveal which one or where any would be produced.

The Jeep prototype was a four-door Wrangler that seats five and runs on electricity, but has a back-up gas-burning motor to generate electricity once the battery charge runs out after about 40 miles of use. The so-called "range extended vehicles" rely on a lithium-ion battery system that plugs into a standard household outlet.

To make the vehicle would require retooling at Toledo Jeep, company officials said. But whether it would mean additional workers was unclear.

Toledo Jeep now makes two and four-door Wranglers and the Jeep Liberty and Dodge Nitro.

To illustrate Chrysler's impact in Ohio, Mr. LaSorda said at the Toledo rally that the company last year had nearly 8,000 employees and retirees, 625 suppliers, and 170 dealers in the state. It paid $15 million in state taxes and $737 million in wages and pensions, he added.

"We are talking about neighborhood streets and auto plant streets. This is where the true work begins," Mr. LaSorda said. "This isn't about Joe the plumber. This is about Joe and Josephine the autoworker."

After the rally, the Chrysler president said he was happy to hear that the United Auto Workers union leaders yesterday decided at an emergency meeting yesterday to delay the company's payments to a multibillion-dollar, union-run health care trust fund and to reduce a company-funded "jobs bank," which pays its laid-off workers nearly 95 percent of their after-tax wages.

Mr. LaSorda said he would be willing to meet with UAW President Ron Gettlefinger to discuss contract changes. The UAW leader said yesterday the union is willing to reopen contract bargaining

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