Ford plant workers seek ‘green’ future


Having heard their jobs are not on the chopping block – at least for now – workers at the St. Paul Ford assembly plant hope they can convince the automaker to pursue a “green” future for the facility.

In a major restructuring announcement Monday, Chairman William Ford said the company will shut down 14 manufacturing facilities in the next six years, including seven vehicle assembly plants. To the relief of members of United Auto Workers Local 879, the St. Paul plant — which had been the subject of closing rumors for months — was not on the list.

However, two of the assembly plants to be closed were not named; Ford management said they “will be determined later this year.”

The announcement left the St. Paul workers still anxious, but hopeful they can sell the company on the idea of keeping the plant operating by producing a “green” vehicle that runs on alternative fuels such as biodiesel.

“We understand a decision about our long-term future will be made sometime in the next year,” Local 879 President Rob McKenzie said. “As far as we’re concerned, we’re a viable plant and we fully intend to get a viable product here and be part of the future of Ford Motor Co.”

The plant currently produces Ford Rangers, the automaker’s smallest pickup truck, but sales of the vehicle have lagged in recent years. Local 879 is awaiting a response to a proposal it sent Ford management outlining a “sustainable re-industrialization model” for the St. Paul plant.

Given Minnesota’s commitment to the environment, the plant’s quality workforce and its unique access to clean, hydroelectric power, “we think that this is the place to be making an E85 vehicle, a biodiesel vehicle or a hybrid vehicle,” McKenzie said.

Production of a “green” vehicle would require an investment of $500 to $750 million and 18 to 24 months to retool the plant, he said.

Trauma, then relief
In the short term, the plant’s 2,000 workers are just glad they don’t have to start scanning the classifieds for new jobs. And they have a break from the constant media speculation about the plant’s future.

“It’s been traumatic for our membership,” said Jim Eagle, Local 879 building chairman. “There’s still a wariness, but also relief.”

“Any time we’re spared is good news,” said Shawn Milliron, a 14-year employee. “Today gives us an opportunity to show Ford how good a workforce we have, to show them what we have to offer.”

“It’s a good day,” said Denny Dickhausen, a paint department employee who has 35 years at the plant. He is looking forward to retirement next year. His wife, Brenda, has 28 years at Ford and could retire a year later.

Dickhausen said he would like to know Ford’s plans for the plant, “but I think we’re going to survive this one.”

Ford workers Sylvia Rutledge, Chris Kohn and Denny Dickhausen all expressed relief that the St. Paul plant will remain open. Noted Rutledge: “We just build too good a quality product with a great workforce.”

Management and labor must address competition from other countries, said electrician Chris Kohn. “We’ve got to be more innovative, we’ve got to work differently. We’re not just competing against America. We’re competing against China, Guatemala….it’s no big deal to push a couple of buttons and send it across to the other side of the world to get it done.”

Ford’s restructuring plan – with its focus on plant closings and massive layoffs – is another chapter “in the continuing story of the destruction of the American middle class,” said Local 879 President McKenzie. “Our view is if we don’t do something about health care and trade policy, we’ll see many more days like this.”

A partnership approach
Joining UAW leaders at a news conference were St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman; Matt Kramer, commissioner of the state Department of Employment and Economic Development; and Congresswoman Betty McCollum, whose district includes St. Paul. They said all levels of government will work in partnership with the workers to keep the plant operating.

“We’ll do everything we can from a city perspective to continue the existence of this plant,” Coleman pledged.

Kramer said state government and Gov. Tim Pawlenty “will continue to engage with Ford and certainly with the UAW” to save the plant.

“This is more than just a Ford plant. This is a community plant,” said McCollum.

In a statement from Detroit, UAW President Ron Gettelfinger called the company’s restructuring plan “extremely disappointing and devastating news for the many thousands of hard-working men and women who have devoted their working lives to Ford.” The layoffs are subject to negotiations and the entire restructuring plan is likely to play a role in next year’s national contract talks, he said.