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Third shift in jeopardy at Chrysler plant
Chris Vander Doelen, The Windsor Star
Published: Sunday, December 09, 2007

Windsor could lose the third shift at the Chrysler assembly plant if the United States continues its slide into recession next year, some auto industry analysts are warning.

But other analysts examining the latest sales figures say the first few months show the recently launched 2008 Chrysler and Dodge minivans are successfully defending the company's most important franchise.

If the midnight shift is let go -- a dark fear haunting the city's dwindling Chrysler workforce -- it would mean the loss of at least 1,000 more of the region's best industrial jobs.

A thousand or more parts jobs at other local plants would probably also disappear.

Erich Merkle, vice-president of forecasting for IRN Inc. of Grand Rapids, Mich., said early sales figures for the 2008 vans indicate Windsor's third shift is safe.

Chrysler's October sales were up 4.5 per cent, November sales were up 1.1 per cent.

"In order to cut that shift out of Windsor, sales would have to be a lot lower. I find it hard to believe they're going to drop off that significantly," Merkle said.

But others say signs the third shift could be in trouble are beginning to mount.

Ward's Auto, a respected industry magazine and website, reported Nov. 28 that Windsor's third shift could be in danger due to softening minivan sales.

"Chrysler LLC will cut back shifts at Brampton and most likely its Windsor facilities," the magazine told its online subscribers. Production at each of Detroit's Big Three will drop over the next five years, the publication and data service says, and "Chrysler is expected to suffer the greatest loss."

University of Windsor professor and automotive analyst Tony Faria agrees with Ward's.

"It would not be surprising at all to see a shift eliminated at Windsor minivan," Faria said. "Minivan sales are down considerably through 10 months of 2007. With the current level of minivan sales, Chrysler will either have long layoffs in Windsor, eliminate a shift in Windsor or go to one shift in St. Louis."

Faria bases his analysis on overall sales in the minivan segment, not how well Chrysler's sales figures stack up to those from one year ago.

Figures he compiled recently show total North American minivan sales through October were 796,695 units, down 5.6 per cent from the same ten months of 2006.

"Projecting to the end of the year, total minivan sales for 2007 will be around 960,000 units (for all of North America)," Faria said. "This is considerably below the 1.1 to 1.2 million units that Chrysler was forecasting for North American minivan sales in 2007."

Merkle said the absence of Ford and General Motors from the minivan market should help Chrysler at least a little.

But George Pipas, chief sales analyst for Ford in the U.S., issued a statement recently predicting that 2007 sales of minivans could be the lowest in 20 years -- less than 800,000.

The minivan share of the market in the first 10 months of 2007 represented only 5.2 per cent of all light vehicle sales in North America, down from 7.3 per cent in 2001, Faria noted.

Chrysler is projecting it will sell 372,000 minivans in 2007. It sold 533,573 in 2001.

Given the volatility in the marketplace, the company has a policy of not commenting on work schedules farther than a week out. Officials declined to comment on this story.

CAW Local 444 president Ken Lewenza was out of the city on business and could not be reached for comment.

Merkle said fears that the third shift will be cut are probably unfounded. "Even if they do just a little bit better" with the new van than its predecessor did, "that's enough to keep the shift going."

The peak of the minivan selling season is between March and June, which will be the true test of the new Chrysler vans, Merkle said. "Sales take off every year in March, like clockwork, because of family vacations. It's almost like they're selling lawnmowers."

[email protected] or 519-255-5777, ext. 645.

© The Windsor Star 2007
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