“Hey hey, ho ho, ain't no way we'll let Jeep go!” the crowd chanted during what was dubbed a Wrangler Rally. Volunteers have even formed a Keep Jeep page on Facebook.
According to proposed legislation before city council, the city would acquire nearly 30 acres of land at the former Textileather plant for $738,000. The current owners would place $1.75 million in escrow toward the cleanup of the site.
According to documents provided to city council, there is an existing consent order from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for cleanup of the site. It is unknown how much remediation would cost, however, because it's not been made public what kind of toxic chemicals may be present or if the old plant building contains asbestos. Either problem would drive up the cleanup cost significantly. It is also unclear if federal or other funding would need to be used for brownfield remediation, cleanup, and site preparation.
UAW Local #12 President Bruce Baumhower addressed the group through a bullhorn just before going inside for city council's agenda review meeting. He emphasized that city council must understand the issue is no longer about converting the 2018 Jeep Wrangler to an aluminum body.
Fiat-Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne has warned retooling the Toledo plant would be cost-prohibitive if the company decided the new model would be made of aluminum, sparking fear Toledo would lose the iconic model altogether, because production would move elsewhere. Automakers are under pressure to improve fuel efficiency and meet tougher future government standards.
"There's no chance to keep Wrangler in Toledo if we don't acquire that land," Baumhower told the crowd.
Keeping Jeep Wrangler manufacturing in town is especially important to Latino families. Dozens of Latinos are among the hundreds of employees at the Toledo Jeep assembly complex, not to mention dozens of others who work at auto parts suppliers up and down I-75. Many of those families are still recovering financially from the recent recession which cost some their jobs and left others on layoff for months at a time.
Automotive News recently reported that the 2018 Wrangler would feature an eight-speed automatic transmission that would boost fuel efficiency by nearly ten percent. Whether that's enough to avoid the conversion to an lighter aluminum body remains to be seen. But the same publication has cited sources who say the lighter metal is no longer a consideration for future Wrangler production. A reduction in the vehicle's body weight also would boost fuel efficiency.
Autoworkers and city leaders are trying to use those fears as an opportunity: that the world's most productive workforce deserves the chance for increased Wrangler production locally. Global demand for the Wrangler has increased significantly and the Jeep workforce continues to set auto production records for the iconic model.
“Forget about the aluminum issue,” Baumhower told the crowd. “The current Wrangler plant that we've been running since 2006 is not large enough anymore to build enough Wranglers to meet demand.”
The issue is now that the Toledo Jeep Assembly complex is land-locked. The Wrangler production facility is surrounded by I-75 and the new Jeep Cherokee factory. Baumhower stated the Textileather land deal would not only save autoworker jobs, but provide a plant expansion that would mean more work. UAW members have worked Saturdays, holidays, and through traditional summer shutdown periods to help meet global demand for the Jeep Wrangler over the past three years. Many autoworkers feel it is payback time.
“City council understand, now's the time to buy the land,” the crowd chanted before going inside to pack city council chambers with a show of force.
“My expectation is that if we don’t buy the Textileather property, it would mean that Chrysler would have to retool the current production to produce the new Wrangler and I don’t know if that is something that fits into their business model,” said Matt Sapara, city development director.
Fiat-Chrysler's CEO has said that shutting down Wrangler production in Toledo for retooling would be too cost-prohibitive. The other side of the Toledo Jeep assembly complex shut down for several months for the automaker to convert from Liberty to Cherokee production-- a scenario that likely would not be repeated because of lost sales.
Baumhower told city council that the current success of the Jeep Wrangler, which is continuously setting monthly sales records, makes the vehicle too important to Fiat-Chrysler. He added the automaker simply could not afford to shut down production for six months to retool in Toledo for an aluminum body.
“The transition has to be seamless,” said the UAW Local 12 president.
“The auto industry is a part of our history and tradition and a strategic part of our future,” said Toledo City Council member Lindsay Webb, whose North Toledo district encompasses the Jeep plant. “We must do everything we can do as a city to secure this opportunity for the next generation.”
An official vote on the land deal is scheduled Tuesday, Dec. 2, 2014, which means Toledo City Council members will be under extreme political pressure until then to approve the legislation.