TOLEDO, Ohio — Lots of workplaces have a hot seat. At the Jeep assembly plant here, there is a "sweet seat."
In the production line where Jeep Wrangler SUVs are made at the rate of about one a minute, a panel must be screwed into the bottom of the vehicle. It used to be back-breaking work for two union members to carry the panel and screw it on as the vehicle moved down the line.
Occasionally, they would miss screws.
Now two workers sit comfortably on adjacent chairs that follow the vehicle. Lasers point out where the screws go, reducing errors.
What is remarkable about the so-called "sweet seat" at Fiat Chrysler Automobiles' Toledo plant is that like many other innovations here, it originated with UAW members on the factory floor.
Production workers here create proposals to simplify tasks that are "too heavy or too hard," said millwright Greg Harman, who is on a team of 10 UAW workers that implements those ideas. A handful of automakers have adopted aspects of a similar system, pioneered by Toyota Motor Corp.
The uncommon level of union collaboration with Fiat Chrysler management in Toledo offers a road map for union negotiations this summer with FCA, General Motors and Ford Motor Co.
According to officials at the automakers, their key focus in this year's contract talks will be on productivity and profitability in the face of an anticipated downturn in vehicle sales and nonunionized competition from the likes of Toyota, Nissan Motor Co. and Volkswagen Group.
That clashes with union demands to maintain health care benefits and boost job security, and comes on the heels of GM's warning that it could shutter a car factory in Lordstown, Ohio, along with three other UAW-represented plants. GM'S move drew harsh criticism from President Donald Trump, and prompted the UAW's new president to bulk up the strike fund — serving notice the union is not afraid of a fight over jobs.
At a time when national UAW membership fell 8 percent in 2018 after rising for nine consecutive years, and has failed this century to organize a single U.S. assembly plant owned by a European or Asian automaker, FCA's Toledo plant has more than tripled its work force to 5,700 workers since 2009.
The biggest reason: Americans' love with the Wrangler and other high-margin utilities.
The Wrangler became so hot that FCA started running the plant virtually round the clock. So UAW Local 12, which represents workers at the Toledo plant, pushed for a flexible system under which workers could choose to work between four and seven days per week — a first for any FCA plant.
Temporary workers fill in the gaps, and Local 12 sought more protections for those workers, including providing a clear path to full-time employment status.
"Our members went way, way, way beyond the call of duty to provide what the company's needs were," said Mark Epley, the plant's union chairman. "It's a competitive market out there and we know that any plant can be taken away at any time."
Thanks largely to its success at FCA, UAW Local 12 has hit a 40-year high in membership through organizing workers at many other companies in the area, including a Dana Inc. plant where workers make Wrangler axles.