Ford Motor Company's Twin Cities Assembly Plant (TCAP) in St. Paul, Minnesota, is an anchor for the community. It is also slated for closing. The workers there have built Ford Rangers for the last twenty years. Their parents and grandparents built tanks there during World War II. Rich in history, it was also the shop that painted Minnesota senator Paul Wellstone's storied campaign bus green.
The plant itself is "green"—one of a few in the world that generate all their energy from clean, renewable sources on an industrial scale. In 1924, Henry Ford built the plant around hydroelectric energy on the Mississippi River. Because the plant has no smokestacks belching pollution, the surrounding region sustains remarkable biodiversity to this day. Residents nearby like to boast of the bald eagles that fly over the parking lot.
It is not just a zero-carbon plant, either. In its paint shop it produces only half of the amount of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that Minnesota allows. This is a plant and a workforce that have taken the idea of clean manufacturing to heart. The workers themselves have contributed to greening the plant. By negotiating a four-day work week and ten-hour shifts, they took two thousand round-trip commutes off the road each week, cutting CO2 emissions and freeing up an entire day's worth of clean, pollution-free, peak electric power each week to feed back onto the grid. For this progressive workforce, the three-day weekend was the cherry atop the environmental sundae.
Age has given the plant a rich history but has also threatened its existence because Ford has not invested in the modernized equipment necessary to keep it on the cutting edge. So when the company faced pressure to downsize, it was exactly this sort of older plant in need of new capital investment that was put on the chopping block. Yet like many others, the St. Paul workers rallied to save the plant by developing a plan. Their plan was to sell the green attributes of the facility as a benefit to the company
Fortunately for the workers of the Twin Cities plant, they have a secret weapon in the person of Lynn Hinkle. Hinkle is a second-generation union man who has spent thirty years in the auto industry, starting out on the assembly line, where he worked for ten years as a shop steward fighting for air and water quality inside the plant and defending benefits for the workers. In his words, he "bleeds union." While committed to the auto industry, Hinkle is also terrified about what's happening to our climate, calling global warming a "climate crisis," not just climate change. "I know where the jobs of the future are. They are in green manufacturing and clean energy," he says.4 So Hinkle led his team in making what they called their "green proposal" to convert the plant from one making trucks to one making flex-fuel or hybrid cars. The workers were optimistic, since their proposal was in line with Ford's stated intent to become a green car company. They made the argument all the way up the line to Bill Ford himself. Their proposal kept the plant open for several years.
In the end, Ford turned down the green plan. On April 13, 2006, TCAP workers were informed that the plant was slated for closure in the spring of 2008.
Today there is little chance that Ford will continue producing trucks at TCAP. After eighty-four years, that fate seems sealed. But the story is not over. The river will still flow, and the turbines will still churn out valuable power; the plant will still be primed to make high-quality industrial products for a changing economy in need of heavy industry, clean production, and a new generation of vehicles.
The team that put together the green proposal has not stopped moving. Today they are pursuing a green conversion proposal that focuses on other clean-energy product options for manufacturing in the facility. The State of Minnesota is eager to preserve its industrial base, too, and energy innovation is the obvious way forward. The legislature launched a study to convert the state's fleet to plug-in hybrids, with an eye toward manufacturing the retrofits at the Twin Cities Assembly Plant.
The Twin Cities themselves are partners. A joint green manufacturing initiative has been launched by Minneapolis mayor R. T. Rybeck and St. Paul mayor Chris Coleman committing to plug-in hybrids and other clean technology. They were joined by the likes of Steel Workers president Leo Gerard and the head of the Sierra Club, Carl Pope, as they announced the partnership right out of the UAW union hall.
Ford may be leaving this car town, but manufacturing will continue, and it will be driven by changes in energy. Whether the next employer at TCAP is the firm that makes railcars for transit systems or the highend electric car manufacturer the conversion team is also talking to, or the company that builds taxis to run on compressed natural gas, cutting carbon emissions by 30 percent, remains to be seen. Or there is Hinkle's favorite, the manufacturer of wind turbines to supply the booming Minnesota wind energy market.
Each product line has demonstrated demand, and serious manufacturers with reasons to locate in the region are taking the opportunity to manufacture at TCAP seriously. The effort to retrofit the plant for a new generation of clean-energy jobs has the backing of the union, the Twin Cities, and the state. So even with Ford leaving the picture, the chance for good manufacturing jobs in transportation and energy remains strong. If Hinkle and his team succeed, it will truly mean a changing of the guard, as the car company with the worst fuel economy closes a chapter on its history and turns over the future of this green plant to a new generation of clean technology.
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