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Published: Friday, 2/10/2006

Toledo-area plants of Big Three escape latest cuts

BY JULIE M. McKINNON
BLADE BUSINESS WRITER

About the time DaimlerChrysler AG finished cutting 26,000 jobs a couple of years ago, the Toledo Jeep Assembly Plant was picked for a $2.1 billion expansion that will double the number of vehicle models built there to four.

Even as General Motors Corp. slashes 30,000 jobs and closes or reduces work at 14 North American plants, the automaker is considering a $504 million addition to its Toledo transmission factory.

And although Ford Motor Co. has not identified all the factories it will close as part of its latest restructuring, expected to shed up to 30,000 jobs, its Maumee Stamping Plant is adding work to negate other losses, keeping employment there stable.

The three Toledo-area plants, along with a Chrysler machining factory in Perrysburg Township that escaped closure in 2003, have collectively lost 2,800 of 12,000 jobs in the last five years as the Big Three boosted productivity, cut production volumes for some products, and opted not to replace some workers who retired.

Still, with one massive expansion investment nearing completion and another impending, the Big Three's future in the Toledo area is rosier than in many other areas, union, company, and industry officials say.

Products made in the Toledo area - such as the iconic Jeep Wrangler, Chevrolet Tahoe transmissions, and Ford F-150 plastic wheel wells - largely remain in demand, they say.

Plus, workers in the Toledo area have a strong work ethic, good skills, and solid relations with management, they add.

"I think, to a great extent, it's the product and/or the product mix," said auto analyst Joseph Phillippi, president of AutoTrends Consulting in Short Hills, N.J.

At Maumee Stamping, which makes parts from plastic and steel for Ford's U.S. assembly plants nationwide, work for the doomed Taurus sedan is being replaced with some for the Econoline van, said Bob Smotherman, president of United Auto Workers Local 1892 at the plant.

Strong relations between union and management at all of the Big Three's Toledo area factories, including involvement in the Working Council on Employee Involvement, have helped them survive, he said.

"It's not a matter of luck," Mr. Smotherman said. "They're willing to work together, and they're willing to get through it together."

Good labor relations and kudos for high productivity are hallmarks at Toledo Powertrain.

Along with a favorable economic incentive package, that could help sway GM to build in Toledo instead of putting additional six-speed transmission production in one of two other plants, said Burt Wagner, UAW Local 14's chairman.

"If you can pull that off I'd think you've got your A game right there," he said.

At Toledo Jeep, UAW Local 12's willingness to allow suppliers to do some Jeep Wrangler work - and take some jobs - caught Chrysler's attention and led to the innovative new project adding three factories and expanding another at the complex, said Chrysler spokesman Ed Saenz.

Toledo Machining, meanwhile, has lost 800 hourly and salaried jobs in the last five years, including 200 since last spring. The torque converter and steering column factory is working on lean manufacturing and having employees work in teams, Mr. Saenz said.

Although the Toledo area has been fortunate, it's bittersweet knowing that other communities are struggling with closures and downsizings, said Bruce Baumhower, Local 12's president.

Still, union leaders wisely positioned local factories to be competitive, he said.

"I tend to believe it has something to do with our good work ethic in our community," Mr. Baumhower said.

Said Local 14's Mr. Wagner: "It's the premiere workforce. I don't think you're going to find anybody better in the nation."

Contact Julie M. McKinnon at:

jmckinnon@theblade.com

or 419-724-6087.



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