Workers at Chrysler’s Belvidere assembly plant report back tonight after a two-week break with a tentative contract in hand and an uncertain future.

Workers at Chrysler’s Belvidere assembly plant report back tonight after a two-week break with a tentative contract in hand and an uncertain future.

Instead of making things clearer, the tentative contract — achieved after a 6-hour United Auto Workers strike — raises questions about the Belvidere plant. 

Unlike the agreement the UAW reached with General Motors in September, the tentative contract with Chrysler gives few guarantees. Belvidere’s only guarantee is that it will be open through the end of the product life-cycle of the Dodge Caliber, Jeep Compass and Jeep Patriot.

Those launched in 2006, so they should have several years to run. But Patriot sales have been lukewarm at best, and reports last week indicated Chrysler may eliminate as many as five nameplates this year, including the Compass. The crossover was panned by critics and Jeep purists from the start.

The tentative contract also does not convert the 600 or so people working in Belvidere on temporary contracts with lower pay, fewer benefits and no seniority rights into permanent workers. That inculdes about 40 workers who used to be permanent part-timers that were converted into two-year workers.

Without being converted to permanent status, the 600 are unlikely to reach two years.

Even the contract is in doubt. The local union chief opposes it, and workers at a Missouri Chrysler plant voted it down Friday.

The uncertainty comes just two years after Chrysler’s former parent company, Daimler AG, poured $419 million into the plant. Money was spent retraining the work force and making the body shop fully automated so workers could ramp up or decrease production of certain models based on market conditions.

The goal was to avoid shutdowns, which are costly because the company continues to pay the workers even though they are not working. Chrysler is the Rock River Valley’s largest manufacturing employer with more than 3,600 workers on three shifts.

But workers are coming back after just such a shutdown.

The company ordered the plant shut down because of a massive backlog of Jeep Patriots and Compasses.

The slow sales, if they continue, will affect staff levels.

The new contract would allow the company to hire new workers for nonassembly-line jobs at even less than the temporary workers are making. That means the temporaries could be phased out by a new group of hires. Or the company could eliminate the third shift and cut the temporary workers because their contracts say they can be let go at any time.

The third shift is more and more in danger with each weak monthly sales report. Several workers this week called or e-mailed saying they have heard it could be gone as soon as December.

Successful platform

Eric Mayne, editor of WardsAuto.com, the latest generation of a company that has been covering the auto industry for more than 75 years, said despite the lack of guarantees and struggles of the Jeeps built in Belvidere, he believes the plant is not in danger of a permanent shutdown.

“The (PM/MK) platform is one of Chrysler’s most successful platforms,” Mayne said. “The viability of Belvidere is pretty solid. They’ll probably lose a shift, but the Caliber has a home there as long as they choose to build it.”

Mayne also said Chrysler workers shouldn’t get too caught up in the fact that the UAW didn’t receive the same product guarantees as GM.

“That GM deal was extraordinary in the amount of detail it put out,” Mayne said. “I’ve never seen a document like it and none of my colleagues have either. GM clearly was dealing from a position of strength that Chrysler and Ford do not have. I don’t think Chrysler is withholding detail. I don’t know if they have plans out there past 2013. Jim Press is reviewing the models right now.”

Press, 60, joined Chrysler as vice chairman and president in mid-September after 37 years of working with Toyota. He is one of several high level executives Chrysler’s new parent company, Cerberus Capital Management of New York, has lured to a new management team.

Two weeks into the job, Press said “there seems to be a little too much overlap in some of the models.”

The lack of product guarantees and the fact that the temporary workers remain temporary will make the contract a tough sell in Belvidere and elsewhere. Local UAW President Tom Littlejohn was quoted in media outlets nationwide saying he wasn’t going to recommend approval to the Belvidere membership.

On Friday, workers at Chrysler’s pickup truck plant in suburban St. Louis rejected the contract by a 2-to-1 margin. Union officials there were bothered by the contract’s creation of “core” and “noncore” workers, with newly hired noncore workers being paid a lower hourly wage. The contract did pass by a large margin in the Kenosha, Wis., engine plant, though, which recently was given a new six-cylinder engine to build. It’s unclear when Belvidere workers will vote on the deal.

Bad news

Even innocuous news was bad for the Belvidere plant the past couple of weeks.

Mayne of WardsAuto.com reported that production of the Caliber SRT4, the 300-horsepower muscle car version of the Caliber, was pushed back to late in the fourth quarter because of the various Chrysler plant shutdowns.

And Consumer Reports released its annual reliability rankings and the Caliber, still the star of the plant, was rated the least reliable small car along with the Volkswagen Jetta.

Belvidere’s UAW workers in general don’t like what they feel is an inordinate amount of coverage of the company and what the workers are paid. But good or bad news at the plant ripples through the economy.

If the company eliminates the third shift, the workers let go will have to look for work where manufacturing employment growth is stagnant. Plus, the ring of suppliers around the plant likely will cut workers as well. If the company eliminates nameplates, that gives new car dealerships fewer options to offer buyers.

Assistant Business Editor Alex Gary may be reached at agary@rrstar.com or at 815-987-1339.

The ups and downs of the auto industry

The auto industry is a notoriously boom-and-bust proposition. But the highs and lows at Chry­sler’s assembly plant in Belvidere have been especially turbulent over the past three years.

January 2005: After several months of intense negotiations, DaimlerChrysler says it will end production of the Neon and invest $419 million in a massive retooling of the Belvidere plant to make it the most automated and modern of the company’s North American operations.

September 2005: Last Dodge Neons roll off the line as the plant closes for the retooling.

December 2005: A contractor for Alberici Constructors severs his hand while taking measurements on a part to be installed on an assembly line conveyor.

January 2006: Workers make first sale-ready Dodge Calibers. Company says Jeep Compass will be built in Belvidere.

February 2006: First Compasses roll off assembly line although full-scale production won’t start until June.

March 2006: Company re-establishes second shift, boosting payroll from 1,650 to 2,650.

April 2006: DaimlerChrysler announces that Jeep Patriot also will be built in Belvidere.

May 2006: Company announces it will start a third shift for first time in the plant’s history. The shift will begin in July and boost payroll to 3,650. Caliber has what remains its best sales month in the U.S. with 12,422.

June 2006: Third shift begins and most of the more than 800 “enhanced temporary workers” begin working at the plant, hired on two-year contracts that offer lower wages, fewer benefits and almost no job protections.

July 2006: Chrysler officials reveal problems with the plant’s fully robotic body shop are causing numerous shutdowns and slowing supply of the Caliber and Compass.

September 2006: The problems with the body shop forces Chrysler to push back full-scale production of the Jeep Patriot to the fourth quarter.

October 2006: UAW Local 1268 President Tom Littlejohn files an unfair labor practice charge over temp workers with the National Labor Relations Board, charging the UAW and DaimlerChrysler illegally altered the collective bargaining agreement.

November 2006: Kathy Hungness, one of the temporary workers, files a federal lawsuit against Chrysler, the International UAW and UAW Local 1268, alleging “breach of contract” over the two-year contracts. Hungness hopes to have several join the suit and seeks for class-action status.

December 2006: The Patriot finally goes into production and the Compass has its best sales month in the U.S. with 5,066.

February 2007: DaimlerChrysler officials announce a major restructuring to return Chrysler to profitability, including 13,000 in job cuts, trimming capacity by 400,000 units and closing one plant. DaimlerChrysler CEO Dieter Zetsche then tells investors that the automaker is “entertaining all options” for the Chrysler Group. The U.S. Labor Department’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration fines Chrysler and a St. Louis-based contracting company more than $120,000 over the December incident where a worker had his hand severed.

May 2007: DaimlerChrysler announces it will sell 80.1 percent of its money-losing Chrysler Group to private-equity firm Cerberus Capital Management LP for $7.4 billion. Dealers have their best month this decade on Belvidere-built products, selling 31,133 Calibers, Compasses and Patriots in the U.S., Mexico, Canada and internationally.

August 2007: Cerberus takes over Chrysler, fires the company’s chief operating officer, demotes CEO Tom LaSorda and installs Bob Nardelli, a 1966 Rockford Auburn graduate as CEO. Nardelli, a longtime GE executive, comes to Chrysler after a stormy stint as CEO of Home Depot. Workers at the Belvidere plant produce the most vehicles for a month in the plant’s history with 35,145 Dodge Calibers, Jeep Compasses and Jeep Patriots. A federal judge also dismisses Hungness’ lawsuit over the temporary worker issue.

October 2007: Chrysler shuts down the plant for two weeks because of slow sales of the Compass and Patriot. During the shutdown, the UAW orders a strike at selected Chrysler plants, not including Belvidere, but settles several hours later.

-- Rockford Register Star