More than 1,000 skilled trades workers will transform the Windsor Assembly Plant into an Alberta oil sands-like job site during a 14-week shutdown that starts in mid-February, union officials said Friday.

“I’ve worked at Chrysler shutdowns in the past,” said Karl Lovett, business manager at the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. “This is bigger than any project I’ve ever worked on at Chrysler in 20 years.”

Lovett estimated that more than 500 electricians will be needed to retool the plant for the next generation minivan, which is expected to begin full production in the first quarter of 2016.

“There will also be 400 millwrights on the job, plumbers, carpenters, sheet metal workers, painters,” said Lovett. “That would be the bulk of people in there.”

The automaker has, so far, refused to publicly disclose the size of its investment at the plant, but Chrysler Canada CEO Reid Bigland said Thursday the retooling was “significant.”

Unifor Local 444 president Dino Chiodo has said a major retooling would cost in the $1 billion to $1.5 billion range. Last month, the automaker announced it was using a 600-tonne crane to begin installation of 200 pieces of structural steel, which will form a new conveyor enclosure on the plant’s roof.

The new enclosure will accommodate the plant’s first skillet line that moves the vehicles along the line, adjusting the height to the desired level for workers.

Gary Hutcheson, corporate sales manager at W.S. Nicholls Construction Inc., in Cambridge, said his company will be involved in construction related to mechanical and electrical installations. “We are employing trades from the Windsor area — everything from pipefitters, iron workers, millwrights and electricians, ” said Hutcheson.

“Windsor sure needs this; these are good jobs,” he said. “We’ve worked with Chrysler before. This shows their commitment to Ontario and specifically to Windsor.”

John Salvatore, president of Mid South Contractors Ltd., in Windsor, said his company, alone will need about 300 electricians for the 14-week retooling. “We’re doing major body shop retooling as well as expansion work at the northwest side of the front of the building.

“It’s a big contract,” he said, adding that the 4.4-million-square foot facility will be “getting turned upside down for three months. Then, it has to start making cars again.”

The local economic impact of the retooling will be “huge,” added Salvatore. “Altogether, there will be more than 1,500 trades people with good, high paying jobs, working two-shifts, 10-hours a day, seven days a week.”

Lovett pegged electricians’ all-in hourly rate at $58.50, but those arriving from other regions won’t receive relocation pay. Lovett is busy trying to not only recruit enough electricians from Ontario and, if necessary, other parts of Canada, but securing affordable rates for hotel/motel accommodations and restaurant meals.

“I’ve been reaching out to hotels and restaurants trying to fix rates right now to make it affordable for these guys to come here and work,” said Lovett. “We want to provide them with a good wage and still go home with enough money for their families.”

The out-of-town workers need to be shielded from price gouging, he added. “When you have that kind of influx of workers, it’s like Fort McMurray, Alta. Prices go through the roof. What I try to do is talk to restaurants and hotels and work out a fixed rate.”

To recruit electricians, Lovett has been canvassing local unions in such areas as Windsor, Sarnia, London, Kitchener, and St. Catharines.

“They will call it trailer city,” he said of the construction site that will take over Windsor Assembly during the shutdown. “I’m guaranteeing over 1,000 skilled trades.”

The Chrysler retooling also is benefiting Michigan’s economy. Tony Rosati, CEO of Dearborn Mid-West Company, which has worked on such projects as the $1-billion retooling at Fiat Chrysler’s Sterling Heights Assembly Plant, won the bid to build and design the conveyer system for the Windsor plant’s body shop.

“The body shop, which is where sheet metal pieces are welded together, is getting a new conveyor system,” said Rosati.

The contract, he added, “is a good size. It’s going to be one of the bigger contracts for sure.”

Salvatore said his company will be involved in “major body shop retooling. It will be 80 per cent new,” he said.

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