Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Chrysler turns up the heat on Canada

Car maker warns production from two Ontario plants could be transferred to U.S. as it presses governments for emergency funding

From Tuesday's Globe and Mail

OTTAWA, TORONTO AND WASHINGTONChrysler Canada Inc. has warned Ottawa and Queen's Park that it could close its two assembly plants in Canada, eliminating more than 8,000 direct jobs, and shift the work to the United States if the two governments fail to provide $1.6-billion in emergency financial help.

In a 14-page restructuring plan filed with officials last week, Chrysler compares the two assembly plants in Canada with facilities in the United States that could make the models now being produced here, according to people who have been briefed on the document. “In the context, it could be seen as a veiled threat,” said one of the people. The document talks about the challenges of maintaining a “Canadian footprint” and notes the company has the “same type of plant, set up exactly the same” on both sides of the border, the source said.

Government and industry sources have been worried that the U.S. government would attach strings to its final aid package that, in the absence of Canadian assistance, would favour the companies' operations south of the border.

As officials in the two governments digested the requests by Chrysler, Ford Motor Co. of Canada Ltd. and General Motors of Canada Ltd. for $6-billion in loans, loan guarantees and lines of credit, U.S. lawmakers reached a deal yesterday that would give their parent companies a $15-billion (U.S.) lifeline.

It is hoped these funds would keep the car makers alive until after the new administration of Barack Obama takes office in late January. The amount is about half of what the car companies are asking for, and the deal gives Washington the right to buy up to 20 per cent of the companies and would put the government ahead of other shareholders in getting its money back. Congress is expected to consider the legislation this week.

The U.S. deal increases the pressure on the Canadian governments to come through with a rescue package for the companies' Canadian arms, which submitted proposals for assistance that could amount to as much as $7.2-billion (Canadian) if the auto slump deepens and GM Canada needs to draw down an additional backstop of $1.2-billion, which would be on top of a $2.4-billion initial request.

Chrysler spells out the grim prospects for its Canadian operations in its restructuring proposal. The company said it could switch minivan production out of Windsor, Ont., to a plant in St. Louis that is now idled, the sources said. Production of large sedans made in Brampton, Ont., could be transferred to a plant in Detroit.

Closing the two Canadian plants would be a devastating blow to Ontario and especially to Windsor, which has already been battered by thousands of job losses at Ford and GM operations in the city.

It would also lead to the loss of tens of thousands of jobs at auto parts makers in the two cities and elsewhere in the province. Chrysler Canada president Reid Bigland said last week that 420 suppliers in Canada account for 50,000 jobs.

“Everything depends on whether there are strings attached to the U.S money,” according the person who had been briefed on Chrysler's proposal. In the initial round of assistance so far in Washington, the Canadian side is not seeing the U.S. government insist on conditions that would disadvantage assembly plants in Canada.

Democratic lawmakers in Washington said yesterday they have a draft $15-billion (U.S.) bailout bill they believe both the White House and Congress will support. The compromise would require the Detroit Three to produce detailed restructuring plans by March 31. The government would also designate a “car czar” to oversee the rescue, according to a draft of the bill.

Ontario Finance Minister Dwight Duncan said last night that he has not seen the restructuring plans proposed by the Canadian subsidiaries of the Detroit Three. “We have to ensure that whatever the outcome of the arrangement in the United States, that it doesn't prejudice the footprint of the auto sector here in Ontario,” he said. “But we will be there to do our fair share.”

Mr. Duncan said the Canadian governments will be asking the auto makers to make a commitment to produce certain vehicles in this country in return for financial aid.

“I think one of the challenges is that any package may not guarantee everything we want guaranteed on either side of the border,” he said.

It would be relatively easy for Chrysler to switch minivan production to the St. Louis plant, which closed this fall amid the slump and a decline in the minivan market. One problem in gearing it back up, however, would be in restoring the supplier base, because some companies, such as Magna International Inc., closed nearby plants that shipped components to the Chrysler factory.

The Windsor plant outperformed St. Louis in productivity last year according to the Harbour Report, an annual study of North American auto assembly plants.

Chrysler's Brampton plant ranked fifth of six in its category – large, non-premium conventional cars. The auto maker's Jefferson North Assembly Plant's performance on the Grand Cherokee topped the mid-size non-premium utility vehicle category.

Switching production of full-sized sedans to Detroit from Brampton “is not something you could do overnight,” said one industry source.

But the source noted that both plants are operating at less than full capacity.

The third shift at the Brampton plant was eliminated earlier this year amid poor demand for the Chrysler 300 and Dodge Charger models made there. The reborn Dodge Challenger muscle car has been a hit for Chrysler, but not enough to sustain a full shift of production.

Windsor is producing minivans on three shifts a day, but some of that is production of the Volkswagen Routan, a vehicle Chrysler is building for Volkswagen AG.

The Windsor plant will cease production for all of January because of poor sales, union officials said.

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