Ford Tough

Hard times and idle lines come to the auto plant in St. Paul

Members of UAW Local 879 and many industry observers believe that the St. Paul plant will need to be renovated to accommodate a different vehicle line if it is going to survive. They contend that the state of Minnesota will have to provide some kind of financing package to help pay for such a project. "State incentives will have to be offered," says Killeen. "The auto industry doesn't invest money in states that aren't willing to invest in the auto industry. It's a give and take."

While these municipal extortion schemes are strikingly similar to those engineered by professional sports teams in recent decades, automotive plants offer a decidedly better return on investments. The average wage for such work is roughly $70,000, and industry experts estimate that each automotive assembly position creates an additional 7.5 jobs in the community. This is in part due to the proliferation of automotive parts suppliers necessary to produce the vehicles.

"It would probably take employment of at least 10,000 people to make up for that plant if it were to go," says Fred Zimmerman, a professor of manufacturing systems engineering at the University of St. Thomas. "I've long felt that Minnesota needed to attend to the Ford plant because it's such a font of prosperity. We're very fortunate to have it. If we lose it we are not likely to get another plant."

Veteran Ford employees Mark Nelson and Rick Albrecht are concerned about the future of the plant
David Kern
Veteran Ford employees Mark Nelson and Rick Albrecht are concerned about the future of the plant

But Zimmerman and others estimate that it would cost roughly $800 million to $1 billion to retool the St. Paul plant to manufacture a different vehicle line. With Ford floundering financially and the state government mired in debt, the prospects of that kind of financing being ginned up look grim.

Even some employees of the St. Paul plant are dubious about the prospects of state aid. "I agree that they need a different product," says Mark Nelson, who has worked on the assembly line for 27 years. "I just don't think they're going to get any money for it." He's not convinced that the automotive behemoth--which made $3.5 billion in 2004--deserves the assistance anyway. "I'm against any kind of public subsidy for Ford or for any other company," Nelson says.

The 48-year-old father of two is eligible to retire from the plant in just three years, so he's not particularly concerned about his own future. But he worries about the continuing erosion of decent manufacturing jobs for blue-collar workers. "All the blue-collar jobs with good benefits are really under pressure. I don't know where it's all going to lead," says Nelson. "It's happening all over the country."

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