MMNA offering buyout to union workers
Associates worked on installing rubber door weatherstripping, as associate Michael Harris of Peoria, right, installed air conditioning hoses as vehicles moved down the assembly line of the Mitsubishi Motors North America manufacturing plant in Normal in this 2005 file photo. (Pantagraph file photo).

NORMAL - Mitsubishi Motors North America will offer some of its union workers a voluntary separation package.

The Normal plant wants 105 volunteers to accept the company's offer of a lump-sum payment of $85,000 and three months of medical benefits, said MMNA spokesman Dan Irvin. The total represents about 6.5 percent of the company's employees.

The announcement Thursday came as the automotive industry - including Mitsubishi - struggles with production and sales this year amid national economic turmoil.

"We've analyzed the market trends and what's going to be happening to industry sales for the foreseeable future," Irvin said.

While total U.S. vehicle sales dropped 2.5 percent in 2007, Mitsubishi sales increased nearly 9 percent, to 128,993 vehicles.

But the company is not on track to repeat that feat this year.

Industrywide, car sales are down almost 10 percent while Mitsubishi's total numbers have dropped more than 17 percent in the first four months of this year. Sales of the four vehicles produced at the Normal plant are down 10.7 percent.

That means Mitsubishi needed to make some changes.

Already, Mitsubishi slowed its speed on its production line at the start of the month, Irvin said.

"That enables us to combine work and eliminate positions on the line," Irvin said.

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Irvin declined to comment on the number of cars the plant now produces per hour. Earlier this year, Mitsubishi said production employees worked on 52 cars an hour, but the plant has the capability to perform 60 jobs an hour.

UAW Local 2488 members will receive the buyout information in the mail, and Mitsubishi will begin to accept applications the first week of June, Irvin said.

Union production workers who assemble the vehicles can volunteer, and the company will accept those with the most seniority, he said. An average production worker earns $25.67 an hour, or more than $50,000 annually.

Union maintenance workers, who maintain the factory's equipment, are not eligible.

People can volunteer for the offer if that decision is right for them, said union President Ralph Timan.

Both Timan and Irvin are confident enough volunteers will step forward, but neither would speculate about what would happen if that wasn't the case.

"Layoffs aren't an option right now," Timan said.

As part of a wage and benefit cut agreement in 2006, Mitsubishi promised not to close the plant or seek involuntary layoffs through this August - when the union contract also expires. Workers also received a $4 wage restoration agreed to at that time in April as promised.

Mitsubishi laid off 1,200 workers and eliminated its second shift in 2004. The company currently has 1,600 employees, including about 1,300 union workers.

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