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Published: Sunday, 5/29/2005

Contents under pressure: 4 months after shootings, Jeep still seems tense

BY JULIE M. McKINNON
BLADE BUSINESS WRITER
Hourly employees say the factory's goals of high production and high quality create stressful working conditions. A company spokesman says the Toledo Jeep factory doesn't have an unusual level of unrest. Hourly employees say the factory's goals of high production and high quality create stressful working conditions. A company spokesman says the Toledo Jeep factory doesn't have an unusual level of unrest.
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January's deadly shooting rampage at the Toledo North Assembly Plant no longer dominates conversations among Jeep workers on the factory floor or at nearby bars.

But many of the working conditions that some say helped fuel employee Myles Meyers' rage have not improved and perhaps have worsened, workers told The Blade last week.

Tension, for some, still is high.

Some blame management. Some blame the United Auto Workers, or a combination of both. Some say tension is inevitable in a factory with high production goals and a lot of employees.

Worse, many don't expect the unease to go away soon.

Virtually everyone whom 30-year Jeep veteran Tom Wonchala talks to thinks plant management is out to get them in some way or another, he said.

Meyers, too, reportedly thought management was singling him out before he killed a supervisor, wounded two other employees, and killed himself with a shotgun he had sneaked into the factory four months ago.

"The tension is still there. A lot of people are unhappy," Mr. Wonchala said. He was working at the Toledo North factory the night of the shootings.

Yet Lee Herbert, the plant's coordinator of employee assistance programs, said management and the union have taken proactive measures to ease stress. The Meyers shooting, which left both management and union victims, has made employees more conscious of the problems they face and how precious life is, he said.

"We're trying to promote an atmosphere of healing," said Mr. Herbert, a union member who has been at Jeep 30 years. "Some days it goes really well, and some days it's slow."

The stress level is unsettling to some because Toledo Jeep, which has 3,800 workers, is one of the city's largest and best-known employers. It builds virtually all the Jeep Libertys and Wranglers sold worldwide, and its four-year-old Toledo North factory and a massive complex expansion under construction make it DaimlerChrysler AG's jewel that is considered a global model.

Hourly and salaried employees at Jeep understandably remain affected by the shootings, but Toledo Jeep doesn't have an unusual level of unrest, said Chrysler spokesman Dave Elshoff.

"It's the same as any other plant, no worse and no better," he said. "I don't know that we consider the plant to have high tension."

Incidents such as the one that Chrysler reported to Toledo police last week don't help ease 28-year Jeep worker Marie Karl's fears of another shooting.

Last week, a worker threatened a supervisor and said he might shoot employees, a police report said. He was escorted from the premises and suspended, but the company did not press criminal charges. He is to undergo counseling.

"I really am afraid it is going to happen again," Ms. Karl said. "We never know what anyone is thinking in that place."

Chrysler's employee assistance program, to help workers deal with stress from the shooting or other problems, has had a 7 percent increase in use by workers and a 15 percent rise in use by family members, Mr. Elshoff said.

Bruce Baumhower, president of UAW Local 12 at Jeep, said the union's committee works hard to provide information about ongoing issues at meetings with the company and to maintain a presence on the plant floor.

"I have tremendous confidence in Dan Henneman and his committee, and I feel good about what he's doing to work through the issues," he said. Mr. Henneman is the Jeep unit chairman of Local 12.

Among the issues that raise tension, some workers interviewed by The Blade said, are:

  • Overtime is routine even though co-workers are laid off and the company seems to have a good stockpile of the plant's vehicles.

  • The company continues to enforce what workers view as a stricter absenteeism policy, and it continues to combine jobs, fueling resentment.

  • Some young, college-educated supervisors clash with workers who have decades of experience building Jeeps, and some older managers have ratcheted up production pressures, apparently out of fear of losing their jobs. Management stresses quality and demands money-saving short cuts, such as not painting unexposed parts of Wrangler roll bars.

  • Plant security is less than desired, as is health care coverage. Local Chrysler workers once had several managed-care plans to choose from, but they currently have no alternatives.

    Said Jeep worker Mr. Wonchala: "All that adds up. People dwell on that."

    Boosting productivity, improving quality, and reducing materials costs at factories are all part of Chrysler's efforts to be globally competitive, said Chrysler's Mr. Elshoff.

    The company is trying to cut costs in areas where quality and customer satisfaction will not be affected, he said.

    Workers said unease reached new heights after the Toledo North factory on Chrysler Drive opened in 2001, making the Liberty and replacing Jeep Parkway buildings last used to make the Jeep Cherokee.

    At that time, production workers began building vehicles in teams instead of doing a specific job, and there was added emphasis on efficiency and quality.

    Global competition and uncertainty about the Big Three's fate as Asian automakers increase market share have changed the auto industry, and it likely will be a couple of years before the pressure lessens, said David Cole, chairman of the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor.

    Everyone is under pressure to build better or sell more vehicles, he said.

    "It goes with the industry," Mr. Cole said. "It's not just labor. Management is under a tremendous amount of pressure right now."

    Many Jeep workers, Blade interviews found, admit some workplace tension is expected and a sometimes antagonistic relationship between management and hourly workers has long existed at Toledo Jeep. Some workers declined to be named for this article, saying they feared retribution by managers.

    Still, in some areas of the complex and for some workers, there is relatively little strife, some workers said, such as on second shift in Toledo North's engine line, close to the body shop where Meyers worked.

    Mr. Henneman declined to comment on working conditions at the plant, saying he has been instructed by corporate and union officials not to talk because of a pending federal lawsuit.

    That lawsuit, moved from a county court, was filed by Paul Medlen and his wife against Chrysler, its security firm, and Meyers' estate. He was one of the people Meyers injured.

    The union is not a defendant in the lawsuit, which alleges that Chrysler and Wackenhut Corp. provided inadequate security, but Mr. Medlen is a union member.

    Mr. Elshoff, the Chrysler spokesman, declined to comment on whether security changes have been made since the shooting, saying it is inappropriate to compare given the lawsuit.

    Security at all the firm's plants is geared toward preventing unauthorized people from entering, he explained, and nothing short of police officers or military personnel could have stopped Meyers.

    "No private security firm could have stopped a determined gunman," Mr. Elshoff said.

    Toledo Jeep, he added, is a source of pride for Chrysler. The complex is undergoing a $2.1 billion expansion, adding factories that will enable it to make four vehicle models instead of just two.

    It will have three key suppliers on site doing some work that Jeep workers used to, but the new approach is considered more cost-effective and overall the complex is expected to have roughly the same employment.

    "I think Toledo's on track to continue to be a successful plant," Mr. Elshoff said.

    Some workers have questioned why the union's executive committee at Jeep wasn't able to prevent the shooting.

    When Meyers repeatedly ran into disciplinary problems, the union should have worked to move him to another job in another shop, said Ms. Karl, the 28-year Jeep worker. She said she believes the union gradually has become more interested in toeing the corporate line.

    "They're supposed to represent us," said Ms. Karl, a Stickney Avenue factory worker who was unable to retire in February as promised because early-buyout funds were depleted. "I believe they're elected human resource representatives," she added.

    Although the opening of the Toledo North factory added to worker tensions, many workers are concerned about what lies ahead after the construction of the latest factories, some of which will be owned and operated by suppliers instead of Chrysler.

    At times, workers are told jobs will be cut and at other times they are told there will be enough jobs for everyone, Ms. Karl said.

    When the labor contract allowing for the manufacturing arrangement with suppliers was put up for vote in 2003, workers were told those with seniority going back to 1983 would be able to get a buyout package and then could work for one of the suppliers, she said.

    "Change is hard for everyone, we all know that, but this is unbelievable," Ms. Karl said.

    She added: "Everyone says 'You make good money,' but there's more than money."

    Contact Julie M. McKinnon at: jmckinnon@theblade.com or 419-724-6087.



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