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Published: Thursday, 6/12/2003

Zetsche praises local workers

BY JULIE M. McKINNON
BLADE BUSINESS WRITER

Dieter Zetsche, Chrysler's president and chief executive officer, told workers in private meetings that the automaker wants to expand the Toledo-born Jeep lineup, although he declined to talk about plans for specific vehicles such as the Jeep Compass concept or the upcoming “stretch” Jeep Wrangler, said Nick Vuich, chairman of United Auto Workers Local 12's Jeep unit.

Mr. Zetsche visited Toledo Jeep and the automaker's machining plant in Perrysburg Township as part of a routine he established after taking the helm of the financially troubled Chrysler in late 2000. The Blade was not given access into the plants during the visit nor to Mr. Zetsche.

At Toledo Jeep, which makes Libertys and Wranglers, Mr. Zetsche met with union and management officials to talk about strides the Liberty factory has made in quality, volume, and other measures in the last year, Mr. Vuich said. He met with about 100 Liberty workers in a town hall-like setting and had lunch with a dozen people from both Toledo area plants, telling workers that continued improvements will help the automaker compete, Mr. Vuich said.

“It was very positive. People enjoyed it,” Mr. Vuich said. “He talked in a lot of generalities, but it was very positive.”

Chrysler's condition overall - including the expected loss of roughly $1.2 billion this quarter as it engages in a vehicle-incentive war - and its ongoing restructuring also were discussed during Mr. Zetsche's visit, Mr. Vuich said.

Rico Rios, president of UAW Local 1435 at Toledo Machining, could not be reached for comment after Mr. Zetsche's visit to that plant. Neither could workers who talked with the Chrysler leader.

Toledo Jeep is expected to start in the spring to make “stretch” versions of the Jeep Wrangler, a vehicle reminiscent of the Jeep Scrambler pickup made from the 1976 to 1986 model years. But the fate of the Liberty-based Compass concept isn't clear. Chrysler won't comment on future vehicles, including the stretch Wrangler, although Mr. Zetsche has told The Blade an entry-level Jeep modeled from the Wrangler-like Willys and Willys2 concepts are in Chrysler's long-range plans.

Local 12 continues to lobby for additional production at Toledo Jeep, Mr. Vuich said. The subject is likely to be discussed when contract negotiations start. Local 12's contract with Chrysler expires in September, as does a separate national UAW pact with each of the Big Three automakers.

Toledo Jeep has 400 employees doing job-sharing stints with older employees willing to be temporarily idled, and 435 temporary workers are on layoff. The three-factory plant has 3,800 hourly and salaried jobs, and Toledo Machining has about 1,900 employees.



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