November 4, 2008 / 1:05 AM / 9 years ago

Fear crashes Chrysler minivan birthday party

WINDSOR, Ontario (Reuters) - No. 3 U.S. automaker Chrysler LLC threw a birthday party here on Monday for the minivan it invented 25 years ago, but fear that a possible merger with General Motors Corp may cost workers their jobs overshadowed the event.

<p>The Chrysler logo is seen on the back of a 300C during the Chicago Auto Show in this February 6, 2008 file photo. REUTERS/John Gress</p>

“We don’t know if we’ll have a job next week,” said Peter Abwander, who was standing with hundreds of workers waiting on the factory floor for Chrysler to unveil its 25th anniversary editions of its Dodge Caravan and Chrysler Town & Country minivan models. “The company says we’re safer than other plants because of what we make.”

“But you never know,” added Abwander, who has spent 34 years as a driver here. “We just have to pray and hang on.”

Chrysler invented the family-hauling minivan in the 1980s and still counts it as the only segment it dominates. Chrysler controls some 40 percent of the U.S. minivan market and has sold 12 million of them since 1983.

But the No. 3 U.S. automaker -- bought last year by private equity firm Cerberus Capital Management LP from Daimler AG -- has been hit hard by a weakening U.S. economy and tightening credit conditions that make it harder for consumers to obtain auto loans.

Chrysler’s sales this year through to the end of October were down 26 percent.

Through October, sales of the top-selling minivans in the U.S. market were also down sharply from a year earlier. Chrysler’s two minivan models, plus those of Honda Motor Co and Toyota Motor Corp make up more than 80 percent of the total sales in the U.S. market.

Chrysler Town & Country sales fell nearly 8 percent through October and the Dodge Caravan dropped almost 22 percent.

Like the other U.S. automakers, Chrysler has shuttered some plants and cut jobs as sales have plummeted, fueling fears among workers here in Windsor that they will be next.

“There’s not much you can do,” said Maxine Walker, who installs seat belts and has worked here for 13 years. “If your job’s there tomorrow, that’s good.”

“If it isn‘t,” she added with a shrug, “what can you do?”


Chrysler’s future is also uncertain due to talks over a possible merger with No. 1 U.S. automaker GM -- a move that would likely result in tens of thousands of job losses and plant closures -- many of them at Chrysler.

Analysts have said the plant at Windsor, which employs close to 5,000 hourly workers, would be one of those likely to survive because the minivans account for 16 percent of Chrysler sales. It also makes the Routan for Volkswagen AG under contract.

But the notable figures Chrysler had lined up to speak at the minivan’s birthday party made it clear times were neither good nor the future certain.

“With everything that’s going on, you could ask what is there to celebrate,” said former Chrysler Chairman Lee Iacocca, speaking by live video feed. “But in these tough times it’s important to celebrate what we’ve accomplished.”

Iacocca turned Chrysler around in the early 1980s with the help of $1.5 billion in loans from the U.S. government.

“I don’t have a crystal ball,” he told the assembled workers. “I don’t know what the future holds for Chrysler.”

Workers here said that waiting for news of whether or not there will be a merger has been the worst part.

“Not knowing what’s going on is upsetting the workforce,” said Barry, who repairs robots and has worked here since 1979, but refused to give his last name. “Morale is low.”

That concern was shared by Ken Lewenza, head of the Canadian Auto Workers union, which represents the Chrysler workers in Windsor. “We don’t think a merger is in the interests of our members,” he said.

Among the crowd of workers who downed tools to listen to the birthday speeches for Chrysler’s minivan was Dan Duguay. His father worked here for 31 years starting in 1951, and he has been since 1984. He said he would be the last Duguay here.

“There’s no way my son will ever be able to get a job here,” he said. “A third generation of Duguays at this plant is not going to happen.”

Reporting by Nick Carey, additional reporting by David Bailey, editing by Richard Chang

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