Chapter 6: idling

Father and Son Live Through Layoffs

Photograph by Christopher Morris/VII for Bloomberg.com

By 2009, Mark Harrington was no longer living the dream. The maximum overtime he worked during the '90s SUV boom had been replaced by an alternating schedule of two weeks on and two off as Chrysler teetered on the brink. The workforce at Jefferson North had been cut in half because of slack demand. Gone were the days when Harrington bunked in his parents' basement, enjoying the riches of $28-an-hour auto work. He now had a mortgage, a wife, two kids and another on the way. "We were living one day at a time," he said.

Then Chrysler went bankrupt and Jefferson North went dark. Beginning May 4, 2009, Harrington was on indefinite layoff for the first time. So he turned to the only person he felt he could trust, the one responsible for him going to work at Jefferson North in 1994: his father.

Harrington's dad hired into a Chrysler truck plant in 1964 for $2.60 an hour. He lived through the Iacocca bailout and endured an almost two-year layoff while Chrysler built Jefferson North, where he was one of the first workers and from where he retired in 1999. As soon as Chrysler turned out the lights at Jefferson North a decade later, Mark picked up the phone to tap into all that experience. And maybe get a shot of courage.

Photographer: Christopher Morris/VII for Bloomberg.com

The Chrysler Jeep assembly line at the Jefferson North plant. Close

The Chrysler Jeep assembly line at the Jefferson North plant.

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Photographer: Christopher Morris/VII for Bloomberg.com

The Chrysler Jeep assembly line at the Jefferson North plant.

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 Ignition: 'Isn't That What America Is All About?'
Post-Crash Site: Five Scenes of a New Life

"You're not working for some no-name company," Harrington's father told him. "It's Chrysler. There will always be a Chrysler."

The elder Harrington compared his son's plight to what he had lived through in the Iacocca years.

"You're going to come out of this," he told his son.

Mark suddenly felt a little more secure.

"He was good to talk to," he said, quietly.

Unlike some of his co-workers, he didn't consider another career. When his dad got him into the plant 15 years earlier, Harrington stopped taking classes at the community college. The only other job he'd had since high school was as a cook. "I had no other options. I wasn't going to be a cook again," he said.

Harrington took on a role he found uncomfortable: homemaker and caregiver for his children, while his pregnant wife went to work each day.

After leading a team of workers bolting together Grand Cherokees in a bustling factory, Harrington had a hard time adjusting to domestic life. "You're supposed to get up at 4:30 in the morning, get dressed, pack your lunch and drive to work in the wee hours," he said. "Instead, I was getting up at 6:30 and getting the kids ready for school."

Chrysler raced through its "quick rinse" bankruptcy, cleansing itself of plants, dealers and debts. On June 10, 2009, Fiat took control of the newly created Chrysler Group LLC.

Graphic: Jefferson North Flourishes Amid a Shrinking Detroit

Harrington had just finished mowing his lawn on a Friday afternoon in June when the phone in his garage rang.

"It's one of those moments where you remember exactly where you were," Harrington said.

"We're now owned by Fiat," his union steward told him. "We got a new process called `world-class manufacturing.' Report for training on Monday."

Harrington was elated, but he remained stoic. "See you Monday," he said. Then he rushed in the house to share the news with his wife, who smiled and said: "It's about time."

Walking into the plant that Monday morning, Harrington had butterflies. "It was like my first day of school."

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