Chapter 11: ignition

'Isn't That What America Is All About?'

Photographer: Christopher Morris/VII for Bloomberg.com

Terry Thompson was on vacation when Chrysler went bankrupt and word hadn't reached him about the closing of Jefferson North. So as he pulled into the parking lot Monday morning, May 4, 2009, he was stunned to see nothing but empty spaces. "It was an eerie feeling," he said. "I thought, `This isn't right."'

He finally found a supervisor watching over the empty factory. "Terry, what are you doing here?" the manager asked.

"I'm just coming to work," he responded.

Go home, the supervisor told him. There won't be any work at Jefferson North or any Chrysler factory for the foreseeable future while the company goes through bankruptcy.

In 35 years at Chrysler -- through oil embargoes, bailouts and recessions -- Thompson had never faced anything like this. "All our working lives, the plant is open," the lanky Thompson, now 60, said he thought. "Now the plant is closed? No way."

He refused to believe the shutdown would last. "The U.S. government cannot afford to let this industry collapse," he told himself.

Phyllis Adams wasn't so sure. She had been at Jefferson North since 1992, shortly after it opened, and seen the Grand Cherokee's fortunes rise and fall. Bankruptcy was a new low. "No one knew what was going to happen and that was a little scary," said Adams, 42, stylish and well-coifed. "I updated my resume."

Photograph by Christopher Morris/VII for Bloomberg.com Close

Photograph by Christopher Morris/VII for Bloomberg.com

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Photograph by Christopher Morris/VII for Bloomberg.com

Reckoning to Revival: Rebuilding the U.S. Auto Industry
Ch. 1 Buckle Up: The Potholes Stay Where They Are
Ch. 2
Off-Road: The SUV's Ride From Peak to Valley
Ch. 3 Recalculating: Failed Talks and an Italian Wedding
Ch. 4 Rearview: Obstacles Closer Than They Appear
Ch. 5 Done Dealership: Collateral Damage to a War Hero
Ch. 6 Idling: Father and Son Live Through Layoffs
Ch. 7 Recall: Insourcing Workers From Detroit
Ch. 8 Trim: Moving the Assembly Line Outside
Ch. 9 High Gear: A New Jeep Every Minute
Ch. 10 Differential: The Divide Over Wages
Ch. 11 'Isn't That What America Is All About?'
Post-Crash Site: Five Scenes of a New Life

For Adams, Jefferson North was a safe haven in 1992, after she had dropped out of Michigan State University and become pregnant. Her father helped her get the job and the old-timers on the line watched out for her. "They were like, `Oh, baby girl, sit down, you don't have to do that. We'll do that for you,"' Adams recalled, laughing. "It was pretty cool."

She hadn't planned to make auto work a career. Yet after earning her degree from Davenport University, she was never able to find a management job that paid as much as the plant. "I figured I would just do this for a while and I would go back to school and then do something else," Adams said. "Well, I went back to school, but I'm still here."

She earned a bachelor's degree in business administration at night while working at the plant during the day. And she heeded advice from her father, a Chrysler lifer who also works at Jefferson North. "My dad always told me, `Save your money, it's not going to always be there. You've got to hold something for a rainy day."'

Suddenly it was storming and plenty of Jefferson North workers were caught without an umbrella. "There were a lot of people living check to check," Adams said. "They were wondering how their families were going to eat."

Adams and Thompson were among the lucky ones. They were some of the first workers called back to Jefferson North. Skilled tradesmen like Thompson, a pipe fitter, were called in early to maintain the plant's mechanical infrastructure. Adams, a team leader of a crew in the paint department, was brought back after only two weeks so she could receive training.

Both Adams and Thompson are among the veteran workers who still earn higher wages than the new hires. As an assembly worker, Adams makes $28 an hour, while Thompson gets the skilled trades rate of about $34 an hour. Though they haven't received a raise in their hourly rate in years, Adams and Thompson haven't had their pay cut. All hourly workers, new and veteran, received a bonus of $2,250 this year based on Chrysler's earnings.

For Thompson, Chrysler was an escape from a low-paying bank job in his hometown of Cleveland. A friend told him about openings at Chrysler, which was booming in the mid-1970s, and before long he was on the line at an engine plant south of Detroit. After 20 years, he took training to become a pipe fitter. He was sent to Jefferson North in the mid-'90s to serve his apprenticeship and has been there ever since.

He and his wife live in a suburban home. He put his three children through college on what he has earned inside Chrysler factories for 39 years.

"The auto industry created the middle class," he said. "With this job, I've been able to live a better life."

That's why Thompson always believed the government would rescue the auto industry. And he was right. Neither President George W. Bush nor President Barack Obama let the industry collapse. They came through with an $80 billion bailout and ushered GM (GM) and Chrysler through bankruptcy in less than six weeks.

These days, Adams and Thompson are each working at least 50 hours a week trying to keep up with the pace at the plant that once again never closes. Thompson arrives at 3 a.m. and leaves at 3:30 p.m. each day. He said he has never worked so hard.

"It takes a toll on you, but what I'm experiencing now is the price we have to pay," Thompson said. "It's better than the industry being killed off and I'm out of a job."

The speed of Chrysler's comeback has amazed Adams. Would she have expected this five years ago? "No way in hell," she said, laughing.

Thompson sees it as a testament to the resilience of the American autoworker. "We build the product," he said. "The corporation has engineers and designers and management. But the man on the floor, the woman on the floor, they're the ones who are actually building the product. It's not the CEO. It's not the bean counters. It's not the engineers. It's the man and the woman who are getting up early every day.

"When you think about it, isn't that what America is all about?"

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