Autoworkers rally behind House fuel-economy bill

Mike Ramsey

The national debate over fuel-economy standards came to downtown Chicago on Thursday as more than 100 Illinois auto workers –- most from the Rockford area -- championed a U.S. House bill over a competing Senate measure with tougher provisions. 

During a brief rally at Federal Plaza, U.S. Rep. Don Manzullo, R-Egan, and other proponents of the so-called Hill-Terry bill (HR 2927) argued the legislation would still hold the auto industry to high benchmarks while protecting American jobs. Manzullo and Belvidere Mayor Frederic Brereton traveled with more than 60 employees of the local Chrysler assembly plant, which makes the Dodge Caliber and Jeep Compasses and Patriots.

“In Belvidere and the surrounding region, auto jobs are important,” Brereton told the crowd after he arrived with a busload of auto workers. “If auto jobs are lost, there will be a ripple effect making itself felt throughout the region.”

At issue are new Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards contained in the broader energy bill that passed the U.S. Senate earlier this year. It would set an average fuel-efficiency standard of 35 miles per gallon by 2020 for cars and trucks combined.

The House bill supported by the autoworkers would require a fuel-efficiency standard of between 32 to 35 mpg by 2022. Proponents say cars and trucks would be treated separately within the framework, making it easier for automakers to hit the target.

The current U.S. fuel-efficiency standards are 27.5 mpg for cars and 20.7 mpg for light trucks.

Chrysler could be at a competitive disadvantage under the Senate energy bill because trucks and SUVs comprise 70 percent of its output, with the remaining 30 percent being cars, said John T. Bozzella, the company’s vice president of external affairs and public policy.

Rebecca Stanfield, state director of Environment Illinois, said she prefers the Senate approach to fuel efficiency but added it is only a “modest step in the right direction.” The weaker Hill-Terry measure is “unacceptable,” she said.

Ford workers from Chicago also attended Thursday’s Chicago rally, but they were outnumbered by the UAW members from Belvidere. Bozella, the Chrysler official, said some workers were allowed to attend on company time while others traveled on their own time.        

Belvidere assembly-line worker Pam Pool of Machesney Park said she came in hopes of convincing the public to support the House bill.

“Anything we can do to bring attention to our cause is a plus,” she said.

Mike Ramsey can be reached at (312) 857-2323 or ghns-ramsey@sbcglobal.net.