Opportunity ripe for clean, green energy at Rock Tenn

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People often ask me how it is going, and I respond that in the labor movement there is nothing but opportunity.

I am 50 and have seen some pretty wild things happen to working people over the years. Lately, I have said that the 1980s look good to me in regards to bargaining and protecting workers’ rights, and that was the time that President Reagan took on the air-traffic controllers.

Opinion: Opportunity ripe for clean, green energy at Rock Tenn

My focus now is the opportunity to use a crisis to rebuild the labor movement, particularly the industrial side of labor, by confronting global warming and growing jobs in St. Paul. Regardless of what you hear on KSTP, global warming is real. We keep burning fossil fuels, emitting all sorts of long-chained stuff I knew in chemistry but can’t remember now.

We also keep shipping jobs overseas. We have bled so many jobs out of Minnesota because of failed trade agreements that it is a rarity to meet an actual union manufacturing worker. The electro-plating plant I once worked in had most of its business head to Mexico. The foundry I had a cup of coffee in is now offshore. And the fur warehouse I worked at took off when China became the home of mink coats. (I hate to disappoint all my PETA friends, but I had to earn a living.) Many of our blue-collar jobs have split because of globalization, and they aren’t coming back.

What, then, is the opportunity? St. Paul is blessed with a number of resources: good workers, the largest recycler in the state and potential for sustainable development with a regional transportation vision. To review, paper recycler Rock Tenn lost its power source when the High Bridge coal plant was replaced by a natural gas facility.

That was good for the planet, good for construction trades and bad for Rock Tenn, which needed the steam. Rock Tenn has engaged the St. Paul Port Authority in finding a new energy source. The solution might be a biomass power plant located at Rock Tenn that would not only power the plant, but other industries in the Midway. And maybe, just maybe, the plant would heat homes, schools and churches in the area.

I am a member of the Rock Tenn Community Advisory Panel, set up by the Legislature around the idea of reducing carbon dioxide emissions and our dependence on fossil fuels by using renewable energy sources. I figured I’d give up the next two years of my life to be part of some cutting-edge stuff that will retain and grow jobs while making the planet better – if we dare to be bold and build a power plant.

What about Central Corridor? Hopefully, we will hit the bonding home run in 2008, and University Avenue will become the street of dreams. So why not run a steam line up and down to serve existing businesses, schools, homes and churches? I stole that idea from John Wilking, Pipe Fitter and energy visionary. This is a chance to expand district energy, fuel jobs and realize clean, green energy.

We need to organize now to capitalize on these opportunities. We are being out-hustled in some neighborhoods by a group named NAB. Neighbors Against the Burner is opposed to building any power plant in its members’ neighborhood. They have aligned themselves with Xcel energy – a weird sight. NAB members clapped, hollered and fawned after Xcel presented a natural gas solution for Rock Tenn. Rather than waste time with theatrics, fear mongering and misinformation, we should be looking at things we can work together on and finding a solution not only for the workers but for emerging “green-collar” jobs – and for the planet.

Bernie Hesse is director of special projects for UFCW Local 789. Call him at 651-216-3827 to get involved in the fight to save Rock Tenn. He wrote this column for The St. Paul Union Advocate, official publication of the St. Paul Trades and Labor Assembly.

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