DaimlerChrysler truckers saved – for now

by Ron Stang

WINDSOR, Ont. – DaimlerChrysler’s 300 truck drivers had their jobs saved this time. But they might not be so lucky during the next round of bargaining three years from now, as industry trends increasingly push towards the use of outside carriers for both short- and long-haul auto parts freight.

The German-based manufacturer, nominally still considered one of North America’s traditional Big Three car-makers, had targeted its transportation division, Canadian Transport Inc. (CTI), along with 300 janitorial staff and some 70 security guards, to be contracted to outside companies as a way to slash costs during this year’s round of contract negotiations with the Canadian Auto Workers (CAW). It was part of a plan to axe as many as 2,500 jobs from the company’s Canadian operations in a tough bargaining year. The North American industry has come under severe pressure from Japanese automakers, resulting in declining market share and significant financial losses. But in the deal reached hours before the strike deadline Sept. 20, the union was able to whittle the overall job loss down to about 1,500.

The CAW had drawn the line over contracting out or “outsourcing,” a type of concession it has always deemed non-negotiable, and the tough stance apparently won the day. As Ken Lewenza, president of CAW Local 444 in Windsor said, “The company had to weigh striking the company for the 300 (truck) jobs or leaving them where they are. And, for the next three years, they weren’t prepared to take that gamble.”

DaimlerChrysler’s longstanding truck division makes both short and long-term day trips among the company’s assembly and parts plants in southern Ontario and southeastern Michigan. In Windsor this consists of leased tractor trailers emblazoned with the DaimlerChrysler logo that are a fixture day and night on city streets, hauling to and from the city’s huge Windsor Assembly Plant, which manufactures the company Dodge and Chrysler nameplate family minivans. The company’s other Canadian manufacturing plant is in Brampton near Toronto, turning out Chrysler 300 and Dodge Magnum cars.

The driving jobs are highly coveted by CAW members, many of whom had previously worked on the assembly line and bid up to them. At the end of this collective agreement employees will receive $34 per hour plus about the same in benefits, income almost unheard of in the truck business. Moreover, driving within a 400 km radius, highway drivers have weighted shifts of 11 hours and local drivers eight, with the luxury of returning home at the end of the day.

DaimlerChrysler also relies on a vast array of outside carriers that transport parts from around North America. But those vehicles have restricted access within the DaimlerChrysler compound.

“All we let them do is drop off their trailer in the yard and the switchers will pick them up and take them to the dock,” Lewenza said. Besides the 300 CTI drivers DaimlerChrysler employs about 25 yard staff.

While the company had wanted to phase out the division, Lewenza said CTI could now actually pick up more work. That’s because the company, during negotiations, was able to implement continual movement of the assembly line between shifts, increasing the number of vehicles produced per day at Windsor by almost 100 to 1,515 units. “So that will obviously add more trailers,” he said.

The truck division, just like all aspects of manufacturing, already had undergone rationalization – with trucks called “business units” – to maximize their on-road time. “We’re trying to treat our truck driving division the same way we would in a plant, that a truck should never be sitting,” Lewenza said.

DaimlerChrysler management declined an interview, saying it doesn’t comment on contract talks, and referred questions about the truck division to the union.

Lewenza said his drivers have the best “ability to get material on time every time.” He said that, unlike if an outside carrier breaks down, jeopardizing the assembly line because of just-in-time delivery demands, DaimlerChrysler can easily send out a replacement vehicle. “So there’s some unique advantages for having them on site.”

But Toronto-based auto analyst Dennis DesRosiers said the days of auto company transport departments are numbered. “Logistics has become a specialized area of expertise in automotive,” he said. “It is one of the core competencies, competitive factors, within these factories, getting inbound and outbound. And it’s very difficult to develop that competency yourself.”

Lewenza almost conceded as much, saying DaimlerChrysler had told the union it would prefer to invest in core plant operations rather than trucks. But, he said, “quite frankly, we just took the position that our drivers are part of the DC family” and went to bat for them. Looking to the future, Lewenza acknowledged that, “the reality is the auto industry is getting out of transportation.”

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