Time to produce ‘plug-in’ cars in St. Paul, groups say


Could electric cars save the Twin Cities Assembly Plant from closing? Leaders of the United Auto Workers think so. At the UAW Local 879 Hall on Wednesday, the union joined representatives of environmental groups and the solar-energy industry in calling on lawmakers to work with the Ford Motor Company on a plan to transition the Highland Park plant from production of Ranger trucks to production of electric vehicles. 

“The United Auto Workers has been lobbying for incentives for electric vehicles since 2003,” the UAW’s Rob McKenzie said. “The UAW vehemently believes that electric technology is the future – not only the future for this plant, but for our economy. It’s going to take work by everybody in Minnesota to get these jobs here.”

Rob McKenzie at news conference
UAW representative Rob McKenzie addressed the news conference at the Local 879 hall.

Union Advocate photo

Ford announced plans to close the Ranger plant in 2006. Since then, the company has postponed the closing date more than once, while reducing shifts at the plant and laying off hundreds of union workers.

The plant now employs 750 UAW members, about 150 members of building-trades unions and 54 non-union workers, mostly from outside contractors.

Ford says it plans to close the plant in September 2011. But speakers at the press conference said they believe public officials can convince Ford to keep the plant open by offering the company incentives to build electric vehicles in St. Paul.

Ken Bradley, director of the statewide advocacy group Environment Minnesota, said his organization supports the idea of public incentives for Ford to build electric vehicles at the Twin Cities Assembly Plant.

“There’s nothing we should be thinking about more than the chance not just to do things that are going to improve the planet, but to do things that will save the plant here,” Bradley said.

“Keeping this plant open is a much better solution than redeveloping” the site for other uses, Bradley added. “Redevelopment is going to cost a lot of money. Keeping that plant open and keeping those jobs here, I’ll guarantee, is going to be a much cheaper investment for whomever.”

Pushing ‘plug-ins’

Environment Minnesota called the press conference to draw attention to a report it authored on the benefits of increasing use of plug-in electric and plug-in hybrid cars in the U.S.

“Plug-in” cars can be recharged from the electric grid. Some run on electricity alone, while plug-in hybrids are paired with small gasoline engines.

Creating incentives for production of plug-in vehicles, the Environment Minnesota report says, would dramatically reduce emissions that cause global warming and air pollution, while increasing U.S. energy security and sparking economic growth at a time when it’s desperately needed.

“America’s current fleet of gasoline-powered cars and trucks leaves us dependent on oil, contributes to air pollution problems that threaten our health and produces large amounts of global warming pollution,” Bradley said. “Dramatically ramping up electric vehicles can bolster America’s efforts to wean ourselves off of oil and to reduce pollution that causes global warming – and create domestic jobs in the process.”

What’s more, those environmental and economic benefits grow exponentially as more electricity gets produced through renewable means. Congress is considering a climate bill that may require as much as 25 percent of the nation’s electricity supply to come from solar, wind, geothermal or other renewable sources.

Lynn Hinkle of the Minnesota Solar Energy Industries Association said he envisions a completely clean transportation system, where people plug their electric cars into photovoltaic charging stations, fueled by the sun. A market for such “smart-grid” technology already exists, he said.

“People that put up solar panels and want that absolutely clean energy in their buildings want the same kind of energy going into their vehicles,” Hinkle said. “And the people who drive electric vehicles are the same people interested in having a completely renewable, solar-powered vehicle as well.”

Where will the jobs be?

The UAW’s McKenzie, however, warned that even if Americans’ use of electric cars increases, real economic growth will follow only if plug-ins – and the components necessary to manufacture them – are built domestically.

As an example, McKenzie used the Ford Fusion Hybrid, which last week was named Car of the Year at the North American Auto Show. “None of the electrical components in that vehicle are made in the U.S., nor is the car,” he said.

For U.S. manufacturers to compete, McKenzie added, they will need government incentives.

“There have been some announcements recently from U.S.-based suppliers that they are introducing electric components,” McKenzie said. “Each and every one of those suppliers was incentivized by government action.”

Whether similar incentives can save the Twin Cities Assembly Plant from shuttering – and costing the state even more manufacturing jobs – is up to Ford and the state’s elected officials.

“This is what we think it’s going to take to be successful at this plant,” McKenzie said. “We’re going to have to plan what will be the jobs of the future, and we’re going to need government leadership to help get us those jobs.”

Michael Moore edits The Union Advocate, the official publication of the St. Paul Regional Labor Federation. Learn more at the federation’s website.