Audi began production on Wednesday, May 30, of its A3 Sportback, a five-door hatchback, in the former Volkswagen plant in Brussels that had seemed doomed six months ago.
Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt and Volkswagen and Audi executives looked on as the first car was driven into a fanfare reception before management, union leaders and workers.
"The plant was being written off as dead... The future now looks bright, especially for the workers of Audi Brussels," Verhofstadt, who had intervened in a bid to secure the plant's future, told the assembled guests.
Workers at the plant went on strike for seven weeks from November over Volkswagen's plans to stop making its top-selling Golf model in Brussels and to slash the workforce to just 1,500 from more than 5,000.
At least 15,000 demonstrators marched through Brussels to protest in an echo of the outrage caused by French carmaker Renault's 1997 decision to close its plant in the suburbs of the capital.
Resentful VW staff burned flags in December. On Wednesday, May 30, the plant's workers sported Audi logo T-shirts.
"I'm very happy that we've come so far and that Audi has given us a chance. I hope we'll seize it with both hands," said Pascal Van Cauwenberghe of the Christian ACV union.
The Ingolstadt-based VW unit said the new plant was essential for achieving its strategic goal of building 1.5 million cars a year by 2015.
Beyond the A3 Sportback, the Brussels plant is scheduled to begin production of the smallest member of the Audi model range, the upcoming A1, at the end of 2009.
For the current year, the plant's total output of the A3 and other models is expected to be around 84,000 units.
Audi hopes to be able to adjust production volume with flexible operations in Ingolstadt and Brussels.
Similarly, for its A4 mid-size car, Audi's smaller German plant at Neckarsulm could add to the production of Ingolstadt during demand peaks.
Audi has guaranteed jobs for 2,200 Brussels workers beyond 2009 in return for a 20 percent reduction in labor costs.
"We want Audi Brussels to be a benchmark factory," Audi chief Rupert Stadler said before a display of three A3s painted black, yellow and red, the colour's of Belgium's flag.
However, Belgium's auto sector is not out of the woods. US carmaker GM announced in April it would not be building the next generation of its top-selling Astra in Antwerp and that 1,400 employees, a third of the workforce, would go this year.
Fears of further job cuts have led to a series of stoppages at the plant.
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