Mitsubishi Motors North America plans to produce a new model at its plant in Normal, Ill., extending the life of the facility just a month after employees agreed to lower wages the company said were needed to keep it open.
Mitsubishi announced the plans as part of new, global business plan aimed at revitalizing the troubled Japanese automaker.
"One of the main pillars of this (plan) is a transition from region-specific models with all of the specifics that entails — producing for a single market, single group of consumers, a single economy — to more global models that are produced for multiple markets," Mitsubishi spokesman Dan Irvin said. "And the new model will be one of those global models."
The company plans to announce what the new model will be in the next few weeks, he said, but all four models now made at the central Illinois plant — the Galant, Eclipse and Spyder and the Endeavor sport utility vehicle — will be phased out.
Employees and local officials at the plant said they're still waiting for details on the new model and to learn whether it will keep all 1,300 plant employees on the job. But the news that one of the largest and highest-paying area employers will stay open was a relief.
"These jobs are very hard to come by and, again, particularly in this economy when most companies of this nature are just hoping to sustain their current employment levels," city manager Mark Peterson said. "These would be, I hate to say impossible, but almost impossible to replace."
The United Auto Workers said Mitsubishi's announcement was a just reward for tough pay concessions its members had little choice but to accept.
"Considering the economy, the state of the economy right now, I think the decision was pretty clear for a majority of the members," UAW local President Ralph Timan said. "It was a tough decision, and it came with sacrifices."
Two-thirds of the union's almost 1,100 members at the plant voted last month to cut a reported $1.67 an hour from their wages after the company said it needed the concessions to remain competitive.
The Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity said at the time that it was talking with Mitsubishi about possible incentives. The agency and company continue to talk but so far no tax breaks or other incentives have been provided spokesman Mike Claffey said.
Like the auto industry in general, Mitsubishi North America has struggled with slow sales. The company's U.S. market share for 2009 was just over one half of one percent — the lowest level since 1985, according to WardsAuto.com, a web site that tracks auto industry data.
The company's new business plan, which it calls Jump 2013, is aimed at producing more vehicles to sell in emerging markets such as China and Brazil. The goal, according to a company release, is to raise sales to 1.37 million vehicles in 2013 from the roughly 1 million it expects it will sell by the end of the current fiscal year in March.
The Normal plant started making the Gallant and the other three models it now manufactures in 2005, Irvin said.
"They've been very good to us for a very long time," he said.
The plant at one point employed far more workers, but 1,200 were laid off in 2004 as part of what Mitsubishi said at the time was its last chance for survival. Those layoffs have been followed by other wage and benefit concessions.
Peterson said Thursday that he's anxiously waiting for details about what the company's new model will mean for job numbers at the 22-year-old plant.
"The questions is: Now that's one model — is that going to sustain all 1,100 existing jobs, and could it mean more out there?" he said.