In mid-November the sprawling Chrysler assembly plant here was shut down for a week -- a silently unsettling reminder of the uncertainty that hangs over both Chrysler and the small state where the plant and its 4,400 workers are a big factor in the economy.
"We don't permit any pictures of the empty plant," said a plant official, turning away a photographer. "It could have all sorts of devastating connotations."
The future is something no one connected with Chrysler here takes for granted. "We can't go out and say 'I want to buy this on time,' because we don't know what we have to look forward to," said David Darnell, a relief man at the assembly plant for 15 years.
Neither does the State of Delaware, where the economy is so small that the sudden surge in joblessness and loss of purchasing power that might follow a shutdown "would be completely devastating," according to a top aide to Gov. Pierre S. DuPont.
"it would creat a problem the likes of which I don't think the state has had to deal with in its economic past," said David Swayze, executive assistant to the governor.
The state still is developing hard figures on what the impact on Delaware would be if rescue efforts fail and Chrysler folds, shutting the Newark plant. Preliminary estimates are that it would cost the state's economy $940 million, not including taxes but counting costs of unemployment compensation, lost wages and lost purchasing power. That is in a state where general fund expenditures last year were approximately $500 million.
The plant sits on a 300-acre site across the road from the University of Delaware. Workers on two shifts spin out some 856 Dodge Aspens and Plymouth Volares a day. The models, which have been recalled in the past for engineering defects, have sold poorly, although the workers defend them as fine cars.
In the spring the plant is scheduled to be retooled to produce Chrysler's K-car, a new front-wheel-drive compact Chrysler hopes will help revive lagging sales.
The workers who hope to build those cars said that the debate over what should be done with Chrysler has left them immobilized, afraid to make plans or expenditures or even to take vacations.
Concern and a sense of helplessness about their own fates have underminded their lives in many ways, but not their work, they said. "It's not hurting the quality of the car," said Joseph Ferrara, an international representative of the United Auto Workers. Ferrara keeps an eye on the Newark plant from nearby Stanton.
One productive side-effect of the concerns over Chrylser has been to cut absenteeism, workers said. "They think it's a blessing to go in now," said Bobby Clemente, a sub-assembler at the plant for 16 years.
If it were up to UAW members themselves, making concessions and building good cars, there would be no problem," said Richard McDonough, president of the UAW Local 1183, which represents the workers at the Newark plant. "if it's over our heads and in management's hands, we don't know what the hell is going to happen," he said.
"i feel bitterness," said Frank Cucchiaro, a driver who has worked at the plant 21 years. "Management is paid to know better. If they go down, they're taking all of us with them, and we didn't know anything about it," until Chrysler's problems became public.
Like many other workers, Cucchiaro said he doesn't see many options for himself if the plant were to close. Most of the workers have a high school education or less and are not trained in any other kind of work. "There are plenty of other jobs available for $3 or $3.50, but you can't raise a family on that," said Gene Meinhaldt, who has worked for Chrysler for 16 years.
Neither the workers nor the state feel like they can significanty influence the outcome of Chrysler's problems, but they are doing what they can.
While the workers hand out postcards to friends and neighbors to mail to members of Congress supporting aid for Chrysler, the state is considering other ways of lending a hand.
"we've looked at the entire range of options," said Swayze. "Everything from various forms of tax forgiveness to direct and outright loans on a very small basis," he said. The state recently purchased about 65 large Chryslers for state police to use, but more significant forms of aid may be beyond the state's power to deliver.
"at first we thought about lending them the money for retooling," said Swayze. The state quickly dropped that idea wen they found the costs might be about$50 million -- or 10 percent of the state's general fund expenditures for last year.
"the staggering problem is that Chrysler -- whether it's sick or healthy -- is many, many times bigger than the state of Delaware," he said.
"we're in the unfortunate position of having a singificant stake in Chrysler's struggle for capital without being able to impact on the struggle," said Swayze. "Most of what we could offer would be symbolic," but it might be usefull in getting states other than Michigan to come to Chrysler's aid, he said.
The Chrysler plant is by no means the largest industry in Delaware. Du Pont Co., a name almost synonymous with Delaware, is the state's largest industry. But the Chrysler plant is both large and labor intensive and therefore critical, said Swayze.
"i join the growing number who will not comment on whether Chrysler is salvageable," he said. "There are storm warnings at Ford. And if you look at sales across the industry and the energy problems, you could argue that none but the really healthiest are going to survive."
Whatever philosophical questions there may be about whether Chrysler should be saved, on a practical level the state government is committed. "We have an interest that is significant and could also be called parochial," said Swayze.
Paradoxically, the small town where the assembly plant is located would probably be less effected than the state if anything happened to the assembly plant. Newark is a imaginary line around a relatively affluent part of the suburban sprawl south of Wilmington.
Only a handful of the plant's employes actually live in Newark -- about 300 to 400, according to city planning dirctor Roy Lopada. The city makes most of its money from selling utilities and from property taxes. There is no local wage tax.
Chrysler buys most of its utilities elsewhere, and the city expects the modern plant would be picked up by another operator, so that the property tax revenue wouldn't be lost.
"there would be an effect, but it wouldn't be devastating to the city," said city manager Peter Marshall. "It would be to the families of the people who work there."
The city's concerns about the plant tend to focus almost as much on the traffic problems generated when a shift ends and classes at the university let out at the same time, creating massive traffic tie-ups on one of the town's main roads.
"we've very concerned, needless to say," said Newark Mayor William Reed. "but as a city we would be considerably less effected" than the region or the state at large, he said.
"the city looks on itself as a university town," said Redd. "if either Dupont's engineering department or the university was to close down -- as far as the residents are concerned, it would hit us harder."