ST. PAUL, Minn. (PAI) — Minnesota’s United Auto Workers are taking their fight to save jobs at the St. Paul Ford plant to the state Capitol, where proposed legislation would require the company to maintain the facility so it could be used for other manufacturing.

State Sen. Richard Cohen (D), who represents the Highland Park neighborhood where the plant is located, introduced legislation in early February to help deal with the looming closure. He said state Rep. Carlos Mariani (D-St. Paul) is introducing a companion bill in the state House.

The legislation requires Ford Motor Co. to “maintain the plant and related facilities in a saleable condition for at least five years” after operations end. Ford has said it will cease production of Ranger pickup trucks in 2008. Already, one shift has been shut down and nearly half of the approximately 2,000 employees have been laid off.

The looming end of the St. Paul plant is part of Ford’s multibillion-dollar downsizing, which includes other closings nationwide and the decision by at least 30,000 UAW members to take buyouts or early retirement packages.

Plant runs on hydroelectric

But the legislative response is not typical. In other such cases, both in the auto industry and other industries, local officials have tried to keep plants open while manufacturing the same products. That wouldn’t necessarily be the case with the St. Paul Ford plant.

Ford has spurned attempts by UAW Local 879 and local officials to discuss alternative uses of the plant. The facility is unique because it draws its power totally from a hydroelectric plant on the nearby Mississippi River.

‘Shabby treatment’ of workers

Cohen said his legislation was born out of a sense of frustration.
“The UAW members who work at this plant have been treated quite shabbily by the company,” he said. “Whatever respect I’ve had for this company has been lost as this process unfolds.”

Cohen’s bill is similar to one adopted in 2001 when LTV mining closed its Iron Range mining operation in far northern Minnesota.

Keeping the Ford plant “in saleable condition” would require a skeleton crew of workers to operate the hydroelectric plant and a boiler and maintain the exterior of the facility, said Bob Killeen, Local 879 financial secretary. News reports say Ford is in talks to sell the hydroelectric plant. Cohen said he expects legislative action on his proposal within two months, even though hearings have not been set yet.

Local 879 Health and Safety Director Lynn Hinkle has spearheaded the union’s attempt to find other manufacturers that could take over the Ford plant.

Hinkle said the process of forcing Ford to sell the plant to a manufacturer — as opposed to tearing it down and selling the land to developers — will be difficult. But “there are incredible opportunities,” he added. Use of the plant to produce, for example, wind turbines would provide a huge spur to “green” manufacturing throughout the state, he added.

Ecologically friendly manufacturing

Conversion of older closed factories to newer ecologically friendly manufacturing is one plank in the Apollo Alliance energy independence program pushed by the Steelworkers. For example, a historic former steel plant near Pittsburgh now makes turbines for a Spanish-owned windmill firm — and its workers are USW members.

Noted Killeen, “We are committed to maintaining good manufacturing jobs in the city of St. Paul.”

Barb Kucera writes for Workday Minnesota.



Barb Kucera
Barb Kucera

Barb Kucera was editor of Workday Minnesota. She served for 6 years as director of the Labor Education Service, which publishes Workday. Kucera has degrees in journalism and industrial relations and a background in communications, including as editor of The Union Advocate. She is an associate member of the Minnesota Newspaper and Communications Guild/CWA Local 37002.