Thursday, July 18, 2019
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Local Ford workers relieved, but still nervous about the future

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Ford worker John Gerst of Woodbury says he's relieved the St. Paul plant will remain open, at least for now. But the fact that its future is still uncertain is worrisome, he said. (MPR Photo/Marisa Helms)
Employees of Ford's St. Paul plant say they are relieved they get to keep their jobs. But those jobs are still in limbo. The plant could be among the four as-yet-unidentified assembly plants Ford expects to close.

St. Paul, Minn. — Ford worker John Gerst of Woodbury joined his coworkers Monday morning just before his shift at the plant, to watch Ford executives announce details of the company's restructuring plan.

He's happy Ford did not include the St. Paul plant on the list of factories slated for closure.

"Right now we're fine, so we don't have to feel like we have to worry for a little bit," said Gerst.

But Gerst recognizes the relief may be only temporary. Ford says it will identify four more assembly plants to be closed in the restructuring. So Gerst and his nearly 2,000 coworkers carry on in limbo.

"Having to wonder whether or not you're still going to have a job is difficult on yourself and at home, with your family wondering how things are going to change," said Gerst.

The St. Paul plant makes Ford Ranger pickup trucks, which have been declining in popularity. Workers have had several short furloughs because of decreased demand, and another two-week furlough is scheduled to begin Jan. 30.

The mood was more optimistic across the street from the plant at a union press conference.

"As far as we're concerned, we're a viable plant, we're a good plant, and we fully intend to get a new product here and be part of the future of Ford Motor Company," said UAW local 879 President Rob McKenzie.

McKenzie says there are solid reasons why Ford has spared the St. Paul plant.

"We're the lowest-cost vehicle that Ford makes. We're the No. 1 Ford assembly plant in vehicle quality," said McKenzie. "We're a very efficient plant."

McKenzie says the union wants Ford to introduce a hybrid or flexible-fuel product at the St. Paul plant. "Minnesota is a leader in the environment. I think that's clear. The governor's office made a proposal to work with Ford on biofuels, which has a lot of bipartisan support, and we think it's an excellent idea," McKenzie said. "We think that this is the place to bring an E-85 vehicle, a biodiesel, or a hybrid vehicle."

McKenzie says Ford's own pronouncements about making half its vehicles available as gas-electric hybrid by 2010 is promising. The company announced plans to release four new ethanol-fuel vehicles in the coming year.

McKenzie estimates Ford would need to make an investment between $500 million and $750 million to convert the plant.

Not knowing is the hard part. I hate that.
- Ford worker Guy Putnam

Michigan-based auto industry analyst Dave Cole says it's not clear Ford would install such technology at assembly plants like the one in St. Paul.

Still, Cole applauds the union's leadership for being as aggressive and creative as possible to save their plant.

"The fact that St. Paul was not on the list today was very positive. But, being creative, innovative --- Bill Ford has stated very, very clearly that their future is based on innovation. And that innovation applies to everybody in the company, from somebody on the assembly line to somebody in the finance office," said Cole. "And it's an opportunity. Does that mean this plant is going to survive? We just don't know. But I can tell you one thing for sure, doing nothing is not a good option."

State, city and federal representatives say they're going to do everything they can to work with Ford.

St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman says he's very pleased by Ford's decision, but the work to save the St. Paul plant is just beginning.

"We hope to get out of this cycle -- every couple of years of wondering whether or not the plant is going to stay open," said Coleman. "It's really hard for workers when they are uncertain what their future is."

Ford employee Guy Putnam says the uncertainty has taken a toll on him, and it will continue to limit some of his options.

"This whole town of St. Paul knows we may not be around at any given time," said Putnam. "Whether it be loans -- buying a home, you might not be here in two years to pay for that home, and so then the bank would be stuck with it -- there's repercussions like that. So not knowing is the hard part. I hate that."

Union officials say a senior Ford executive is schedule to tour the St. Paul plant in May. Union officials say they hope to use that visit to convince the company that they have the right idea to ensure a future for the plant and its workers.