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BusINess » Business Workforce » Ford Explorer begins rolling off line at Chicago Assembly Plant

Ford Explorer begins rolling off line at Chicago Assembly Plant

A Ford employee installs parts on the new Explorer on Wednesday at the Chicago Assembly Plant. (Photograph by Heather Eidson/The Times.)

A Ford employee installs parts on the new Explorer on Wednesday at the Chicago Assembly Plant. (Photograph by Heather Eidson/The Times.)

Ford Motor Co. opened the doors of its Chicago Assembly Plant on Wednesday to display what union and company leaders said will be the flagship SUV for the industry.

The Dearborn, Mich.-based automaker has started production of the 2011 Ford Explorer in Chicago, and the plant is buzzing with activity after receiving a new vehicle to build, a multimillion-dollar infusion of equipment and a boost of about 1,200 employees.

Ford and union officials pitched the new Explorer on Wednesday as proof of rejuvenation for a company emerging from the grips of the recession and one seeking to change opinions about domestic automobile manufacturers.

“It is symbolic of the revitalization of Ford Motor Co. and the reinvention of the Ford brand,” said Grant Morton, plant chairman for United Auto Workers Local 551. “Without any doubt, given the opportunity and the resources, Chicago UAW workers can not only compete but blow away any competition in the world.”

Ford dealerships have not taken delivery of the newly produced vehicles yet, but company officials said Explorers would leave the plant and roll onto dealer lots “very soon.”

The Explorer joins the Ford Taurus, the Taurus SHO and the Lincoln MKS that are produced at the assembly plant. Ford’s plant in Chicago Heights stamps sheet metal into different parts for Ford vehicles. With the launch, about $400 million has been invested into the assembly plant at 126th Street and Torrence Avenue and the stamping plant.

Jim Tetreault, who leads Ford’s North American manufacturing division, complimented employees for their level of training and attention to quality, and he said he hopes more vehicles can be produced at the plant as a result.

“These are some of the things that will help us ensure that more new work is brought into this plant and that we continue to have these types of celebrations for years to come,” Tetreault said. “I’ll be back.”

Earlier this year, the company announced the Ford Police Interceptor—based on the Taurus platform—would be produced in Chicago starting in late 2011.

Sixteen-year Ford assembly plant employee Dennis Huddleston said Wednesday it is an incredible time in the plant for employees as a result of the new hires and overtime available for current workers.

“There’s a lot of pride with the employees here and the work force,” said Huddleston, of Cedar Lake. “We’re quality-driven, and that’s why we get the products here.”

Matt Kolanowski, bargaining unit chairman for UAW Local 588, said it’s a blessing to have full employment at the stamping plant when others are running at less than full employment and capacity. He emphasized the need for job training to make sure the quality doesn’t suffer during the influx of new employees.

UAW Local 588 President Bill Jackson said with the 72 employees transferred to the stamping plant from other Ford facilities, the UAW-represented work force in Chicago Heights is near 820.

Of the 1,200 employees brought into the Chicago assembly plant in the past few months, 750 are new hires and about 450 are Ford transfers, said Carlo Bishop, president of UAW Local 551. Bishop said the UAW-represented work force at the assembly plant is approaching 2,400.

“Good news is constantly coming and morale is pretty high,” Bishop said. “It could always be better, but it’s high.”

Morton, of UAW Local 551, said Ford employees have made a number of concessions to help return the company to profitability. He said employees respectfully ask the company to “turn the page on concessions and give back the sacrifices” employees have made.

Sales of Ford vehicles were up 24 percent in November compared to November 2009 and year-to-date sales were up 21 percent from the same period in 2009, according to figures the company released Wednesday.

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