WASHINGTON — Struggling U.S. automakers are launching a round of severe cutbacks as they wait for a government rescue, with Chrysler saying Wednesday it will idle all 30 of its U.S. factories for a month.
Chrysler's plants will furlough 46,000 workers beginning Friday, as a planned two-week holiday shutdown is extended to a full month and possibly longer. The company, which has told Congress it needed $7-billion to survive through the month, also told dealers that it may suspend financing for new cars in a bid to conserve cash.
"No one will return to work any earlier than Jan. 19," Chrysler spokesperson Shawn Morgan said. "I don't want to get into speculating about what may happen after that. ... We're going to continue to monitor the situation."
"If I were a Chrysler worker, I'd be worried that the plant won't reopen," said Brian Johnson, an industry analyst at Barclays Capital.
Most workers will receive unemployment coverage equivalent to nearly full pay during the furloughs, officials said.
The moves come as other U.S. and foreign automakers are announcing steep production cuts that will idle tens of thousands of other U.S. workers as the industry copes with withered demand for new cars and trucks. Ford said Wednesday that it would stop production for an extra week in January at all but two of its plants because of flagging consumer demand. General Motors said on Friday that it will cut production and temporarily close 20 factories.
Honda and Toyota have also announced production cuts.
A plan to issue $14-billion in loans to the U.S. automakers died in the Senate last week, but the Bush administration has indicated it would consider using some of the $700-billion financial industry rescue program to help Detroit. "It's clear that the automakers are in a very fragile financial condition, and they're taking steps to deal with it," White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said Wednesday.
The shutdowns offer a taste of the kind of economic damage the domestic auto industry's loss could cause. The Big Three — GM, Chrysler and Ford — employed about 240,000 U.S. workers at the end of 2007. Foreign automakers employed about 113,000 people in the United States.
The U.S. auto industry's suppliers employ an additional 975,000 people, according to the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Mich.
The furloughs "are a harbinger of things to come if these loans are not secured," said Dennis Virag, president of the Automotive Consulting Group in Ann Arbor, Mich.
Auto plants normally shut down over the winter holiday, but the new reductions extend the usual closures.
Asked whether the announcement might be viewed as a means of influencing politicians who are weighing a bailout, Chrysler spokeswoman Mary Beth Halprin said, "This is really a response to what we're seeing in the marketplace. ... We run plants when we have orders. We don't run plants when we don't have orders."