UPDATED 02/02/12 3:33 p.m.
BELVIDERE, Ill. (CBS) — As U.S. automakers’ fortunes rebound, Chrysler has brought some of the benefit to Illinois, with 1,800 new jobs at its Belvidere Assembly Plant.
Gov. Pat Quinn was joined by Chrysler chief executive officer Sergio Marchionne Thursday to announce plans to reconstitute the third shift at the plant. The shift was eliminated four years ago, and 1,000 jobs were lost.
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As CBS 2’s Vince Gerasole reports, the fact 1,800 jobs are coming to Chrysler’s Belvidere plant is a testament to the workers who lived through the dark times the company faced in recent years. In 2009, fewer than 200 people worked the line.
“We went through a little valley here at the plant, you know, wondering if you were going to have your job or not,” Chrysler worker Ed Castro said.
“Chrysler went through quite a tough time where they filed bankruptcy and nobody really knew what was going to happen,” co-worker Nate Thamberlin said.
But as Chrysler reorganized, a workforce that was still manufacturing two Jeep models stepped up to the challenge and grew. The plant recently ranked third in the world for productivity.
“The story we have written since then is exceptional,” Marchionne said.
Just over a year ago, Chrysler spent $600 million to modernize and equip the plant for the production of future models.
Combine that with a $60 million dollar incentive plan from the state, and Chrysler will employ 4,500 people at the Belvidere plant by summer, as it reintroduces the Dodge Dart.
“This is Dodge Dart country,” Quinn said. “This is a 21st century vehicle, made by people right here in Illinois.”
Marchionne emphasized the importance, and success, of the Belvidere plant.
“It is no secret that this plant has always been one of the best assembly plants for Chrysler for performance; for productivity, and it is a benchmark which is now being measured against European plants,” Marchionne said.
In a survey of auto plants in both the U.S. and Europe, Belvidere ranked third out of 34, he said.
The news is welcome in a town where Chrysler is the largest employer, and where so much of the local economy depends on a thriving plant.
“We’re doing real well for Illinois, for America and for everybody who works hard,” Quinn said.
In all, Chrysler has invested nearly $700 million in a high-tech body shop at the Belvidere plant to construct the Dart for a world market. About 500 of the new workers will be dedicated exclusively to the fuel-efficient Dart, incorporating Italian design from parent company Fiat.
“I think it makes everyone feel better in what’s going on around here, you know, gets everyone’s hopes up,” Castro said.
The men and women who work the lines know they are the lucky ones, because they have work; but each and every one of them knows a friend or neighbor or relative who needs a job.
Castro said the jobs would mean a lot to the community, including the stores and restaurants where they shop and eat.
“That, too, would bring the housing market back up,” Castro said. “Because eveyone’s gonna have a steady job working.”