“That work force always surprises me on how they come up with the time they put in and the cars they build. It just amazes me,” said Mark Epley, the Jeep unit chairman for the United Auto Workers Local 12.
Mr. Epley and other union officials hope that flexibility and willingness to cooperate will bolster their argument that Toledo deserves to keep Wrangler production here well into the future.
Industry experts, however, say it may not be that simple.
“A flexible and cooperative work force is an asset for a company investing in your future kind of standpoint, but it’s a mistake to think you can win on something that’s more emotional than business,” said Kristin Dziczek, director of the Industry & Labor Group at the Center for Automotive Research.
By all accounts, the work force at the Toledo Assembly Complex has done a remarkable job keeping up with demand for the Wrangler, one of Fiat Chrysler’s marquee products and an important profit driver.
Fiat Chrysler must decide what to do with a next-generation Jeep Wrangler, which is due in 2017. Fiat Chrysler must decide what to do with a next-generation Jeep Wrangler, which is due in 2017.
THE BLADE/ANDY MORRISON Enlarge | Buy This Photo
Between 2011 and 2014, Wrangler production soared 43 percent, matching the vehicle’s U.S. sales growth during that time period.
Last year, the plant cranked out nearly 236,000 Wranglers. The biggest challenge in building more is that the plant never was intended to build so many.
With the union’s cooperation the last couple of years, Fiat Chrysler has implemented many creative solutions to increase production. They’ve bumped up production line speed and hired new employees to sub in during regular breaks so the line can keep running.
Last year, Fiat Chrysler hired hundreds of temporary workers to ensure the plant can run every Saturday, rather than two out of every three as had previously occurred. That alone gives the company nearly 14,000 extra Wranglers a year. Working two Sunday shifts a month adds another 9,000-plus a year, union officials say.
The only thing keeping the line from running each Sunday is suppliers are unable to ship enough parts to the plant.
“There’s always people that volunteer to work that,” Mr. Epley said. “If they can get us the parts, we’ll work every Sunday.”
While that affects the production staff, it also puts more pressure on the 437 skilled tradesmen tasked with keeping everything up and running smoothly and safely.
“We’ve got one of the best skilled trades work force there is in Chrysler because our skilled trades go beyond the call of duty to make sure the machines are running and safe,” Mr. Epley said.
Even so, demand may be outrunning production. In the year’s first half, Wrangler sales rose 19 percent to 102,450. Production rose 2 percent through the year’s first half.
Fiat Chrysler Chief Executive Officer Sergio Marchionne for years has praised the willingness of Toledo’s work force to do what it takes to make more Wranglers. At the same time, he has publicly questioned whether the company can afford to keep building the Wrangler here.
But union officials say the work force’s dedication to FCA and the quality of their work are something FCA shouldn’t ignore.
“There’s really no place other than Toledo, Ohio, to build these cars,” Mr. Epley said. “We’re showing the world — and not only the world, we’re showing Sergio — that the product should stay right here for this membership. There should be no doubt in his mind this is the place to build the Jeep Wrangler.”
It’s paradoxical, but the Wrangler’s success may be working against keeping it in Toledo. The Wrangler sells too well and makes FCA too much money to allow the company to halt production for a few months to retool for a next-generation model.
Ms. Dziczek of the Center for Automotive Research said that puts Fiat Chrysler in a hard position of deciding what to do with a next-generation Wrangler, due in 2017.
“It has to do with the incentives, certainly, and all the things that the city, state, and municipal governments are willing to do, but it also has to do with the business case,” she said. “Where is it least disruptive to the overall company?”
And in the end, that could still be Toledo. Mr. Marchionne has said he wants to keep it here and will do everything he can to find a way to make the business case work.
Meanwhile, it’s a waiting game. Mr. Marchionne most recently said he hoped to have a decision by the end of summer.
That’s later than most expected, though Ms. Dziczek said the delay may have something to do with ongoing contract negotiations between FCA and the UAW.
“That’s partly why we’re not hearing much about that,” she said. “Placement of a product can be used to extract lots of flexibility, lots of movement in both the national and the local agreement. Products are job security now. We don’t have jobs banks, we don’t have a lot of other contractual provisions. You have a product that sells and that’s job security.”
Mr. Epley said uncertainty about Wrangler’s future in Toledo is difficult for employees who feel they’ve done all they can for the company and face losing a product that’s both extremely successful and woven into the city’s history.
“It’s very frustrating to the membership,” he said. “They feel they’ve done a great job for FCA. They dedicated their life and blood, sweat, and tears to show the world we are the best car builders and we can do it here.”
Despite that, the plant continues to hum with activity nearly 24 hours a day.
“It amazes me the way Mark and his membership over there have kept their eye on the ball with all the issues swirling around about Wrangler and about the upcoming contract negotiations. All that stuff’s going on, and yet they go in there and continue to build a record number of Jeeps. It’s an amazing workforce, and it’s one of a kind in my view,” said Bruce Baumhower, president of UAW Local 12.