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St. Paul Ford plant spared
By Andrew Haeg
Minnesota Public Radio
January 11, 2002
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The Ford assembly plant in St. Paul has survived a massive companwide restructuring. The company says it won't slow production at the St.Paul plant, or lay off any workers there. The news brought relief to union officials at the plant. But that relief was mitigated by concern for colleagues who lost their jobs, and by concerns over the long-term future of the St. Paul facility.

Ford assembly plant
The Ford assembly plant in St. Paul employs about 2,000 people. It will remain open under the company's restructuring plan announced Friday.
(MPR file photo)

Over the past several days, union officials and the some 2,000 union workers at the St. Paul plant had grown increasingly confident that Ford's restructuring plan would leave them untouched. Indeed, as details of the plan emerged, concerns Ford would close the St. Paul plant, or at least lay off workers there, proved unfounded.

"I guess I don't feel like we averted a bullet," says Rob McKenzie, United Auto Workers Local 879 president. "I feel like the Ford Motor COmpany and the UAW got hit by a bullet today."

That's because some 22,000 Ford workers in Edison, N.J., St. Louis, Ontario, Ohio and Michigan learned they will lose their jobs.

"In the Twin Cities assembly plant, we were fortunate we were not going to feel the direct effects of these capacity reductions. But you know I don't have a good feeling," McKenzie says. "I know a lot of the people from a lot of the plants. And I know what they're going through so I can't feel any relief today."

For now, the St. Paul plant is safe. And, some who are reading between the lines of Ford's plan say the plant's long-term future may look a little bit brighter.

As part of its new strategic plan, Ford plans to roll out as many as 20 new models a year. That may bode well for the St. Paul facility as it looks to replace the Ranger, its only product, which Ford will phase out by 2005.

"Minnesota is going to have to be proactive to keep that plant open. We're going to have to work as a state to do something dramatic."

- St. Thomas University professor Fred Zimmerman

Michael Schmall, managing partner of the Planning Edge, a Detroit-based auto industry analyst, says Ford's new plan may contain a ray of hope for St. Paul.

"The fact that you weren't on that list today, and the fact that there's going to be lots of new products that need homes, could certainly be a positive for the future for the assembly plant in your location," says Schmall.

But cities around the country will compete fiercely for new models. Fred Zimmerman, a professor of manufacturing at the University of St. Thomas, says some well-placed government support could help ensure the St. Paul plant rises above the competition.

"Minnesota is going to have to be proactive to keep that plant open. We're going to have to work as a state to do something dramatic," he says.

In particular, Zimmerman says government officials could ask Ford to put a metal stamping machine in the St. Paul plant. With such a machine, the Ford plant could make its own components like bumpers and panels, instead of having them shipped by suppliers in other states.

The St. Paul plant's distance from components suppliers is often cited as the plant's greatest weakness.

Without a metal stamping machine, "It's just sort of another ordinary plant," says Zimmerman. "A little better than some, but not really extraordinary. And these days the competition in that industry is so intense that we've got to have extraordinary plants in order to compete internationally."

Rob McKenzie
Rob McKenzie, United Auto Workers Local 879 president, says he's encouraged the St. Paul Ford plant will remain open. But he says, "I know a lot of the people from a lot of the plants (that will close). And I know what they're going through so I can't feel any relief today."
(MPR Photo/Andrew Haeg)

St. Paul Mayor Randy Kelly says advocating for a metal stamping machine may be on his agenda when he travels to Ford headquarters sometime soon. But Kelly is more interested in discussing another prospect with Ford management.

"I'm going to offer up to them that we willing to work with them to establish our assembly plant to be a flagship plant facility - capable of producing hybrid gas-electric powered vehicles, and eventually fuel cell cars and trucks in the future," Kelly says.

Kelly says after he travels to Ford Headquarters, he'll work with local universities and others to commission a study of the St. Paul plant.

In particular, Kelly hopes to learn what the plant can do to better align itself with Ford's long-term strategy.

"We need to be proactive and figure out where Ford is going to be in five years and 10 years, and align our capabilites here in St. Paul to meet with that future," says Kelly.

The UAW's Rob McKenzie says Ford's new plan could, with some luck, extend the life of the St. Paul plant beyond 2005.

"The big question for us is, are they going to make a model to replace this Ranger and will it be built here. And I think I'm encouraged by what I heard today as far as that situation goes," McKenzie says.

Mayor Kelly says he hopes to meet with Ford officials as soon as next week.

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