The car you drive is serious business under a Detroit sky. And this Detroit sky roils, August weather set to sweep east over Lake Erie—hot gusts of dry wind, little pellets of rain, intermittent patches of blue visible behind the moving clouds, a nascent Rust Belt rain, bound for Cleveland, Buffalo, Rochester.
All that hanging over the Chrysler–Jeep assembly plant on the southeast side of Detroit. The facility is banded on the outside by various parking lots, separated by high chain-link fencing. Some shift change must be near; employees approach from their parking lot, pairs and singletons, in T-shirts and jeans, wearing heavy boots, carrying little beyond an occasional zip-up lunch box or small cooler. But they walk with pace, and look surprisingly unweary. It brings to mind a university campus more than a pivot point of American manufacturing. Jeep Grand Cherokees are made here. On these American grounds. All of them, all the way. Body, bolt, and bracket.
So I cruise by on the way to the visitors’ parking lot and take a look: Jeep workers. They produce 612 Grand Cherokees per shift, two shifts a day. Twelve hundred Grand Cherokees a day, 350 days a year, 5,000 men and women employed full time in one 283-acre, 3-million-square-foot plant. Just now, from the sidewalk, three men, one woman, raise a hand for a wave.
At the gate of the visitors’ parking, about 60 cars pressed conveniently along the coastline of the plant entrance, I announce myself over an intercom to an unseen security guard. “I’m the writer,” I tell her, “from Seniorhelpline.” She says nothing. “They’re expecting me,” I say. Silence, then the intercom squawks: “Are you driving a Chrysler?”
“What? No,” I stammer. “It’s a . . . it’s not a Chrysler.” A rental. I look around for the camera, figuring I’ll just smile my way through this. “I’m sorry,” I declare. “You’re right. It’s a Chevy. I’m just here to do a story.”
More silence. And wind in the clouds. “A story?”
“Umm.” I pitch her a title then: “ ‘The People Who Made Your Jeep,’ ” I say.
“That’s a lot of people,” she says.
“Some of them, anyway,” I tell her.
Silence. Then the voice: “But you don’t have a Jeep.” Yes. I agree. What can I say?
Nothing apparently, because I am directed back past the edges of the employee parking. The same three men, same woman, smile as I pass them, and wave again. I park facing the exterior-most chain-link. The facility is distant; the sky feels lower. First lesson sinking in: Hereabouts it matters what you drive. Then I do the Jeep walk of shame.
Three workers wait to talk to me here. Three more wait at the Jeep plant 55 miles south of here, in Toledo. So it’s “Six People Who Touched Your Jeep.” They have promised to detail their jobs, to tell me about who they are. Fifteen minutes each, with a PR person and union rep just barely in earshot. Later, I visit each on the floor, where they pace alongside the progress of the assembly line, which isn’t particularly loud, or entirely too swift. Most of all, it is well-lit and compressed only by the accomplishment of production. The nascent Jeeps move on the line at walking speed, the way horses pace themselves to the humans around them. They seem to be expecting something. Workers at every station perform tasks timed out by experts in ergonomics and human movement. The line doesn’t frustrate them. “When the line stops,” one of them tells me, “that’s when people get nervous. No one can work on what the line doesn’t bring.”
I tell him about the walk of shame.
“Yeah,” he says. “They’re really serious about what you drive.” He then stuffs a noise damper into the recess of the rear fender of a Grand Cherokee and adds, “You prove who you are, based on what you drive.”
Scott Olson, 44
Doors-on Team Member, Body Shop, Detroit
I felt like I won the lottery when I started with Chrysler. That was 2010. The body shop was pretty much my introduction to automotive. I painted before then, residential and commercial buildings. I painted for probably 15 years.
People weren’t paying for people to paint their houses anymore. Most of the buildings in Livonia were vacant, so people weren’t paying to have those painted either. I have four kids, so for me it was: You can look at yourself in the mirror a little better knowing you got somewhere to go and earn a living. This was big for me, it really was.
If you’re good with routine, you’ll be better at this job. If you’re the type of person that wants to go out to different locations, and maybe you don’t like going to the same place every day, I think you’d struggle here. But just where can you put your mind while you do the same thing over and over again, and still be focused on the job you’re doing, and not go crazy?
I like factory work. Before Jeep, I worked repairing welding helmets back when people used to weld and not robots. These particular helmets, they had these air-conditioned lines, so I could breathe cool air while I was welding those helmets.
Factory work seemed fair to me. We worked hard. We looked rough. It is hard work, especially when you’re welding, but it pays. Just seemed easy to figure out. It wasn’t something for nothing, which I didn’t want. And it wasn’t killing yourself for nothing, which I absolutely didn’t want. That’s what Jeep is to me. Fair.
When you walk out of this job, you’re ready to walk out. But when you walk in, you’re absolutely ready to walk in. I leave home at 3:30. Get here at 4:30. Start at 5:00. It’s a ten-hour shift. On the way in, people don’t talk a lot. Everyone’s getting acclimated. On the way out, it’s like everyone’s going to see their pony or something.
The hours are long. An eight-hour day would feel like a half-day. But the long shift gives you a three-day weekend every week. I golf on a Friday now, like in the middle of the day. I used to drive by golf courses on Fridays and wonder who in the world could do that. Who’s not at work at 1:00 on a Friday? Now that person is me.
Robert Kiss, 54
Team Leader, Mechanic, Toledo
I go by Bob or Bobby. I’m 54 years old. August 30 of last year marked 35 years that I’ve been here. When I graduated from high school in ’81, it was the era of “everybody needs to go to college to get a job.” And because the manufacturing was low, everybody was laid off back then. So I did two years of trade school.
We all saw what happened after that. The trade schools died out for a long time. Now nobody’s fi the broken toilet. I just had this conversation with my girlfriend the other day. She took her cowboy boot to a repair shop that I know of. The guy running the store is my age. And he’s the last one. His son doesn’t want to do it. The guy fixes shoes. Somebody’s got to fix shoes. I actually started out in the garage as a heavy mechanic back in ’83, and that was short-lived. It was a big seniority department. I got laid off, and then I actually went into the booth, spraying cars. Because we used to have ten painters in a booth. I was a sheet-metal specialist on the line for a little while—that’s where there’s a little tiny dinger or whatever in the white metal, and you just ding it out and metal-finish it before it goes to paint. Now it’s all robots.
Now I’m in what we call the Garage, at the end of the plant. Final inspection. We do a touch-up, buffing, checking to make sure everything’s lined up right, making sure every vehicle is out to the customer perfect. On our line, every car is different, one after the other. There’s really no standard Wrangler. But I have seen a lot of Jeeps in 35 years. All my guys have.
I like working buzz models. Limited-edition Wranglers. We’ll have like a Smoky Mountain Wrangler. Willie’s Recon Wrangler. We had a Winter and an Arctic. Every model, a different package. They get a little special trim. Detailing. They get a little something different on the interior. Something different in the instrument panel. Stitching in the seat. And then all sorts of graphics on the outside of the vehicle. We had one that was a dragon—that took, oh gosh, that really looked like a dragon skin around the body. And the big one we got going on right now is the Rubicon Recon. It’s just a broody-looking thing, the toughest one you can buy. It’s cool. I just really like what we make.
Experience is good—the guys at my station have plenty, but I’ve been thinking maybe you can overrate experience. Mostly my guys care. They’re quality-minded, here to do a job, not just earn a paycheck.
I really haven’t minded robots. Robots do a very good, consistent job. Still, I like the human touch better, because a robot can’t see when something’s wrong. A robot doesn’t care. Can’t. And they don’t have patience. We have to wait until each car comes through the whole process before we determine the need to get it back into a repair cell. We look over every inch, just before they drive it out of here, just before they put it on the train. A robot can’t make sure what’s right. See, cars are more human. They’re for humans. So humans make the call.
But I have to say, robots don’t miss work. They’re very consistent, robots.
Rick Bofia, 52
Team leader, General Assembly Trim 2, Toledo
I look around and most of them are a lot younger than me. Most of the team are in their thirties, or younger. And I tell them: When I go, there’s an open spot. And they’re gonna want the guy that tries the hardest, that’s got the biggest heart, that likes this vehicle the most to take that spot. Right now, that’s me.
I started in ’85, and my father was a chief steward at the time. That’s when they would hire family. I came in as a welder—I welded the bodies. I still look at the cars that come out of here, how they’re welded. Because that was me once. Now I work the line at the point of marriage—the chassis is married to the frame. The frame and wheels come to us from another spot in the plant, and then the body, which is made on the line here, sits down and marries it right to the end of trim two. It really starts to look like itself then.
Everything is manufactured right on—right in—this hundred acres or whatever we got right here. I’m usually here at 4:45 in the morning. I have four kids. Ricky’s here, my oldest. My youngest is coming to work here. So I’ll have two of my kids coming here.
You see a lot of Jeeps. Everybody knows somebody. If you go to the mall, you see somebody from here. You go to McDonald’s, you see somebody from here. And that’s what Toledo is. Everybody knows somebody from Jeep.
Jill Opial, 44
Team Leader, Water Mentor, Toledo
They call me a water mentor, or quality mentor. We are really trying to attack warranty issues with the Wrangler. And most people know that the Wrangler comes apart in 400 different ways. So sometimes the puzzle pieces don’t fit quite right, or they don’t go back together, and water pools in them. Then customers have warranty issues with water leaks.
So we, they—the powers that be—created this job to attack water, warranty, and in-house issues. My job. Little over three years ago. I am kind of in a teaching, mentoring role right now, where I am teaching about our water warranty. I’m teaching the other workers how we affect the quality of our vehicle and our warranty issues from inside the plant. We did some classes where we showed a picture of the really nice hamburger on a restaurant menu, and then the plate arrives and you get this kind of smushed thing. We don’t want that with the Wrangler. We want the Wrangler that’s in the picture. The pretty, shiny Wrangler with no defects, no water leaks, no nothing that the customer is going to be upset about and ruin our name. And Jeep is our name—all of us are putting it out there to the customer.
I’m kind of everywhere, throughout the plant. I have a desk upstairs. And a computer. I go around every day and check water- critical stations, I check water-critical parts, just to make sure we’re all in line, we’re not having any issues in the plant that can affect us down the road in warranty. There are 44 water-critical stations on the line. So, we have an in-line car wash. It looks like a car wash, anyway. We just put the car on a conveyor belt, send it through the car wash, and then we have inspectors on the outside that are looking before they even open the door. So the Jeep is shut tight, closed up, we send down the water, then we open it up and the inspectors follow the water, if there is any, back to the entry point. Sometimes they’re just tracing with a finger. Follow the water. We make discoveries that way.
This is my legacy. My mother worked here for 30 years, my step-dad worked here for 30, too. Anywhere you see a Jeep Wrangler, I had my hand in that. Whether it was built on this shift or another shift, I touched it. This is Toledo. This is Jeep. It’s the legacy of Toledo. I have a sticker on the back of my Jeep that says Toledo Built. That is my favorite part of my Jeep.
Tammi Love, 44,
Chassis Team Leader, General Assembly, Detroit
When I first came in to Jeep, I was on a line, building cars. I went home with bruises every day. They say it takes four months to get used to it. You need to pick up the strength. I just prayed about it and said, “Oh! This is what I want to do!” I just had to find that mind frame of “Hey, I got to go in here. This is what I want.” Because I like the money, sorry to say.
Now I deal with people more than machines. Making sure that their tools are clean and working properly, that their area’s in working order, checking on their head, their focus. Seeing that everything they need to do their job is in place. Right now, I’m working with a new team. I have to get to know their specific work habits. And I have to learn six new jobs. I step in for them when they need a break. I have to motivate them if they’re having a bad day, or they basically don’t want to work, and then somebody’s gonna get hurt. If there’s a problem, they should come to me. I’ll help so we can all get through this day and everybody can go home at 3:30 without no problems.
We do 600 cars a day. The line keeps moving. I’m like, just make your work, and I’ll do a little rotation. Over and over and over. That’s what we do. I’m not saying you won’t be sore. It does hurt sometimes. Oh, I know it can hurt.
Kevin Krantz, 52
Pipe Fitter, Paint Shop, Detroit
I’ve been here 24 years. I think about that sometimes. In one place. And that’s not, like, who I am. I didn’t always stay in one place. I had a lot of jobs before this. A lot.
My first job, I made rubber stamp and stencils at Geisler Stamp and Stencil in St. Clair Shores. I was into graphic arts. See, I wasn’t the book guy. I was the hands-on guy, always taking motors apart and things like that. I’m just talking small motors, mini bikes. After Geisler, I moved over to a gas station. I was a full-service attendant. Then to a medical-supply company. Then . . . my friend’s father had a gear shop and we resurfaced aviation/mining equipment. I was running an old Pratt & Whitney single-index gear grinder. We had a spinning stone. It would index to the next tooth. There was a lead and an involute and a pitch and you had to make sure these things were all right in the inspection room. Once they were meshed together as gears, they had to work, not wear out prematurely, align. It was precise. We used micrometers. I really dug that. But then Chrysler called. That was it. I was 28. Best phone call ever.
I’m in the paint shop now—maintenance and quality control. It could be as simple as a little speck of dirt that got painted over. They’ll call me in and say, “I have a spit on the car,” which is atomized paint that hasn’t broken down into a small enough droplet. If it is a spit, my applicator caused the problem. So that’s on me. I’ll work that out. But sometimes it’ll be a piece of dirt sprayed over. I’ll say, “Well, I can’t control that.” I’ve learned. I always say, “Dirt can be controlled, but not by me.”
We do a lot of looking in this company. Everybody stares at the painted vehicles looking for flaws. It’s visual pride. People really look. That’s not so much physical as it is mental. Troubleshooting.
My son started here two years ago. I don’t know if he sees what he’s got. I’ve seen him go through all the jobs, work one year at this place, or a year and a half at another, then quit. Now he’s making decent money here at Jeep, but he still is temporary part-time, so two years into that, he’s unsure. He always says, “I’m going over to Ford,” because his buddy works at Ford. He tells me, “I’ll get in there and I’ll get full time,” and I’m saying, “Don’t expect it to be much different. This place is a lot to give up.”
Yeah, we used to ride in together every morning. That was something. Our shifts changed. But we’re both still here.
This appears in the May 2018 issue.