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Marchionne Takes Fire

Strikes, protests pursue Chrysler/Fiat CEO.

by on Jan.15, 2010

Chrysler CEO Marchionne's speech, this week, drew several protests, but the executive's big challenge is a planned strike against Fiat.

It’s not always easy keeping people happy when you’re running a car company.  For Sergio Marchionne, who heads both the Italian automaker, Fiat, as well as the troubled American car company, Chrysler, it adds up to double-trouble.

The biggest issue, for the moment, is on the European side, where Fiat is facing the threat of a system-wide “warning” strike, on February 3, with workers set to protest plans by the company to shutter a factory in Sicily.  Further job actions are hinted at if Fiat refuses to rescind the death sentence for what Marchione has described as the most costly assembly plant in the company’s network.

But the executive hasn’t escaped the angry mobs here in the U.S., either, where he is spending half his time trying to manage Chrysler’s turnaround.

Earlier this week, Marchionne was greeted by two separate protests before delivering a speech to the annual Automotive News World Congress.  As the Italian executive was being introduced by AN Publisher Keith Crain, a woman raced to the podium and began screaming about the automaker’s alleged role in her mother’s death in a car accident.  It took several security officers to eventually drag her off the stage.

But that only gave cover to another, more subtle protest.  Several people entered the grand ballroom at Detroit’s Renaissance Center carrying brightly-colored balloons – some observers wondering if it were perhaps a celebration of the 40th birthday of Chrysler design chief Ralph Gilles.  In fact, the helium balloons were quickly released, carrying a protest banner to the ceiling of the ballroom.

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It wasn’t at first clear who was responsible, initial attention focusing on the same folks who’d protested the Chrysler and General Motors bailouts outside Cobo Hall during the Detroit Auto Show.  It turned out, however, that the protestors – one shouting, “shame,” in vernacular Italian – were upset by Chrysler’s plan to go with non-union car haulers.