Chrysler LLC, the struggling automaker reorganizing in bankruptcy, will lay off 992 workers from its Belvidere assembly plant and convert the plant to a one-shift operation.

Chrysler LLC, the struggling automaker reorganizing in bankruptcy, will lay off 992 workers from its Belvidere assembly plant and convert the plant to a one-shift operation.

The company sent out an e-mail at 6:42 p.m. Tuesday with the new plan for its Belvidere plant where about 2,600 workers on two shifts have been assembling Dodge Calibers, Jeep Compasses and Jeep Patriots.

The plant has been idle since Chrysler filed for bankruptcy protection at the end of April and halted production of all of its manufacturing operations. The workers losing their positions will go on an indefinite layoff as of July 27. The company extended a buyout offer — a $75,000 cash payment and a $25,000 voucher for a Chrysler vehicle — until May 26.

Nothing finalized with Fiat

As one of its first actions in bankruptcy, Chrysler filed a motion to sell its assets to Italian automaker Fiat Group SpA. Chrysler spokeswoman Dianna C. Gutierrez said the decision to cut the shift in Belvidere was Chrysler’s alone.

“We haven’t finalized anything with Fiat,” Gutierrez said. “We’re still operating as Chrysler.”

The Belvidere plant opened in 1965 and has been perhaps the main economic driver for Boone County since, although it’s certainly had its ups and downs.

When the company, then owned by Daimler AG of Germany, announced in 2005 that it was ending the 12-year run of the Dodge Neon, the plant was operating just one shift with about 1,600 workers.

$419M spent in renovations

The company spent the final three months of 2005 spending $419 million to renovate the plant and retrain its work force to build the Dodge Caliber. In 2006, as the company added the Jeep Compass and then the Jeep Patriot to the line, the company brought back the second shift, adding about 1,100 workers, and then added a third shift for the first time in the plant’s history.

The Caliber got off to a strong start and eventually peaked at more than 101,000 sales in the U.S. in 2007. Sales in 2008 slipped, however, to nearly 85,000. The Compass has never been a success in the U.S. market, and the Patriot, with nearly 56,000 U.S. sales in 2008, showed strength, but still the combined sales of the three barely beat sales of the Neon in 2000, the last year Chrysler was selling it through both Dodge and Plymouth dealers.

With sales well below expectations, the company eliminated the third shift in March 2008.

Diverse mix of employees

Typically in layoffs, seniority plays the major role. For years, the work force at the Belvidere plant was fairly stable. There were still several people left who were hired in 1965. Today’s mix is far more diverse. As Chrysler cut shifts and closed plants to save money as sales plummeted, workers transferred into openings at other plants. Today, the Belvidere plant is manned by workers who started in such places as Huntsville, Ala., Indianapolis, Syracuse, N.Y., St. Louis and Detroit.

The old jobs bank, where workers received almost all of their pay during layoffs as long as they checked in with the UAW local occasionally and did odd jobs, has been eliminated. Workers on indefinite layoff will be eligible for unemployment pay along with a supplemental amount from the UAW. That sub pay, however, was reduced in the latest contract changes approved by workers after it was negotiated by the UAW, Chrysler, Fiat and the federal government. The lower levels take effect July 1.

If a worker at Belvidere’s plant is offered a position at another Chrysler operation and refuses the position, then they would become an inactive worker and only retain recall rights, Gutierrez said.

Alex Gary can be reached at agary@rrstar.com or (815) 987-1339.

Key products
Workers have made a dizzying array of vehicles since Chrysler opened the Belvidere assembly plant in 1965:

Plymouth Fury: 1965-77

Dodge Polara: 1965-73

Dodge Monaco: 1965-77

Chrysler Monaco: 1965-77

Chrysler Town & Country: 1972-77

Plymouth Horizon/Dodge Omni: 1977-87

Dodge Charger/Plymouth: Turismo 1982-87

Dodge Shelby Charger: 1983-87

Dodge Rampage/Plymouth Scamp: 1982-84

Chrysler New Yorker/Dodge Dynasty: 1987-93

Chrysler Fifth Avenue: 1989-93

Chrysler Imperial: 1989-93

Dodge/Plymouth Neon: 1993-2005

Dodge Caliber: 2006-09

Jeep Compass: 2006-09

Jeep Patriot: 2006-09