By Jeff Gilbert, CBS Detroit
STERLING HEIGHTS, Mich. (CBS Detroit) – The auto plant that would not be closed celebrates a big victory Friday with the ceremonial launch of the all new Chrysler 200.
The vehicle is built in an all-new body shop, and painted in an all-new paint shop, in a plant that — according to original plans — would be an empty lot or rusting hulk today.
“It’s been amazing,” said Tyree Minner, manager of Chrysler’s Sterling Heights Assembly Plant. “This work force is a work force that never gives up.”
Dozens of auto assembly plants closed during the past decade; Sterling Heights was the only one to be pulled from the scrap heap and given a future. That future is being celebrated at Friday’s ceremony.
When Chrysler filed for bankruptcy back in 2009, Sterling Heights Assembly was put into “Old Carco, LLC” as a facility that was not deemed worthy of being a part of the new Chrysler. It was an old, dirty plant, that built the Chrysler Sebring — a product that was routinely criticized, and a big money loser — needing thousands of dollars in incentives.
”I was laid off for 16 months during that time,” said worker Stacie Steward. “So I was sitting at home not really knowing what was going on at the plant. So, when we got the news about the plant closing and bankruptcy and everything, I really thought I was going to have to move out of state. It was gloom and doom here.”
Steward thought her future was in Belvedere, Illinois, where she had the right to transfer. She was so certain she was going to have to move that— even when she did have work — she commuted more than 100 miles each day from her family home in Saginaw, not wanting to have to move twice.
But, slowly things changed; people were called back.
The plant had a reprieve, and was able to build the current generation Chrysler 200 and Dodge Avenger. Finally, after many efforts from the community and the UAW, Chrysler brought the plant back into the company, and invested $1 billion to prepare for a totally new version of the Chrysler 200.
“In 2009, it was doom and gloom for my brothers and my sisters who worked in the plant at that time,” said Charles Bell, president of UAW local 1700. “To see a new product, two new buildings in 2013-14 is a very exciting thing for all of us.”
Chrysler has hired 800 new workers at Sterling Heights. Bell has the opportunity to meet with them all, and explain to them that their future is tied to the success of the products made at the plant.
“We want to make sure new employees are car builders and craftsmen, and not just somebody who’s here for a paycheck,” he said. “Right now, I think that’s what we have, people who are here to build the car to the best of their ability, because they know their future’s tied to it.”
As part of Chrysler’s “World Class Manufacturing” system, plant employees have been working with engineers and designers. That gives them a better understanding of the vehicles they will be building.
“Our future is directly tied to quality,” said Bell. “If the car isn’t right, and we send it out the door, it has an impact on the work force. In the end, we suffer.”
For Tom Gjokaj, who will be celebrating his first anniversary next week, getting a job at Chrysler—even at the lower second tier wage—has been an opportunity to get his life together, and plan for a future with his wife and children.
“Before I got hired at Chrysler, I was bouncing from job to job. Sometimes work. Sometimes no work,” he said.
Now, said Gjokaj, he has a future, similar to his father, who worked on the line at Chrysler for 30 years, and was able to provide for his family. “I’m going to be able to do the same thing for my children, and more.”
Car companies don’t put a billion dollars into a plant to just build one model. While Chrysler is not saying what other vehicles may be built in Sterling Heights, there’s a good chance the plant will get new work in the not too distant future.
“We are capable of building multiple products in this facility,” said plant manager Tyree Minner. “With the brand new paint shop and brand new body shop, we can build two unique body types in our body shop. We can basically build the majority of units that are in Chrysler-Fiat’s portfolio.”
For Stacie Stewart, now celebrating 13 years at Chrysler, she has the confidence it takes to move to the Detroit area permanently.
“We’re family now. Just like any other family. You go through trials and tribulations. But, it makes you stronger.”
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