With Twin Cities Assembly Plant Now Closed, St. Paul Ponders Future Of Shuttered Site

Employees crowded around, took photos and cheered as the last Ford Ranger pickup truck rolled off the assembly line Friday in St. Paul,  Minn.

At least one worker was bewildered by the reaction.

Photo by Slobodan Stojkovic via Flickr.

“I could not understand why there were cheering for the last vehicle,” Mike Montie, who worked at the Twin Cities Assembly Plant for 28 years, told the Associated Press. “You cheer for the first one, not the last one. I was like, ‘What the hell?’ I didn’t want it to end, you know?”

He was one of 800 employees who lost their jobs when the Twin Cities Assembly Plant closed Friday. The plant, located along the banks of the Mississippi River, has produced more than 6 million cars during an 86-year history. But sales of the Ranger have slackened since the 1990s, and Ford decided to concentrate on larger, more profitable pickups.

A multimillion dollar cleanup of the 122-acre site will begin early next year.

Local officials are hopeful the site can be repurposed. According to the St. Paul Star Tribune, locals are considering a lot of possibilities, including a green manufacturing complex, a densely populated transit village, a park, an office campus and a middle-class neighborhood.

Continue reading “With Twin Cities Assembly Plant Now Closed, St. Paul Ponders Future Of Shuttered Site”

Midwest Memo: Groupon Gets Mixed Reviews, GM Stymies Saab, Harley-Davidson Begins Wisconsin Layoffs

Three stories making news across the Midwest today:

1. Groupon gets mixed reviews. Three investment banks that sold Groupon’s initial public offering in November have mixed views of the company’s stock. Credit Suisse analysts rated the stock “neutral” in research reports released today. Morgan Stanley advised its clients to wait to buy shares of the Chicago-based company until the stock price fell, according to our partner station, WBEZ. Only Goldman Sachs rated the stock a “buy.” Banks that lead an IPO traditionally  deliver favorable ratings. Shares were sold to the public at $20 each in the IPO, and traded at $22.20 this morning.

2. Saab files for bankruptcy. Concerned that its technology could land in the hands of Chinese competitors, General Motors blocked a sale of Saab, which subsequently filed for bankruptcy. Experts tell the Detroit Free Press that the 60-year-old company will likely be sold off in parts. Saab CEO Victor Muller purchased the company from GM in 2010 intent on restoring it. But GM still owned some technology licenses for the car, and feared that reorganizing the company through Chinese and Russian financing could mean the technology would be used by competitors. Saab filed the bankruptcy in southwestern Sweden.

3. Harley-Davison layoffs begin. Harley-Davidson Inc. has started sending layoff notices to hourly workers in its Milwaukee-area manufacturing facilities as part of its plan to reduce its headcount by 26 percent, according to the Chicago Tribune. The company plans to lay off approximately 250 of its 950 union workers, and then will hire 150 to 250 temporary employees to handle seasonal production increases. The company expects to save $50 million per year. The move comes as part of CEO Keith Wandell’s push to make the company and its workforce more flexible while courting a wider set of buyers.

Happy Birthday, Industrial Robot: 50th Anniversary of Unimate

Here at Changing Gears, we can’t let 2011 go by without marking a revolutionary anniversary.  Fifty years ago, in 1961, GM installed the first industrial robot.  It altered the course of manufacturing forever. Unimate was a robotic arm that unloaded hot pieces of die-cast metal.  Joseph Engelberger, known as “the father of robotics,” saw the invention as a way to replace dangerous, dull and dirty jobs.

Unimate actually had two fathers – George C. Devol, who died in August at age 99, and Engelberger, who is still alive.  Back in 1966 Engelberger joined Unimate on “The Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson, where he (the robot) sank a putt and opened a can of beer.  We were struck by the wonder of that moment, the enthusiasm for the power of automation.  Chrysler and Ford followed GM’s lead, but it was Japan that fully embraced the new robotics.

Indiana’s Governor Backs Right to Work Effort; Will Other Midwest States Follow?

For years, Indiana’s Republican governor, Mitch Daniels, has resisted efforts by fellow Republican lawmakers to implement Right to Work legislation. But now, Daniels is making a Right to Work law one of his legislative priorities for 2012.

Right to Work laws mean employees do not have to join a union, if it is formed in their workplace, nor do they have to pay union dues. (To see Right to Work states, click here.)

Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels

Under “closed shop” laws in effect in Michigan, and other northern states, employees must either join a union when one is certified, or pay dues. Some people say that forces them to become union members against their will, since they must pay dues anyway.

Daniels, in a presentation Thursday laying out his goals for the new year, said Indiana needs the law because he believes it will lead to increased job opportunities. Daniels said the nation’s 22 Right to Work states enjoy faster job and income growth, and have lower unemployment rates.

“After a year of study and reflection, I have come to agree that it is time for Indiana to join the 22 states which have enacted right to work laws,” Daniels said in a statement Thursday. Continue reading “Indiana’s Governor Backs Right to Work Effort; Will Other Midwest States Follow?”

Mark Your Calendars for “Getting By,” A Special Broadcast From Changing Gears

As you’re relaxing on Boxing Day, tune in to our partner station WBEZ Chicago for the Changing Gears special, “Getting By.” We’re talking to eight Illinoisans from all walks of life — a banker, a farmer, a hospice nurse, a returning veteran and others — about the way they dealt with the economy in 2011, and their hopes for 2012.

"Getting By" participants

There are many statistics about the economy, like the unemployment and foreclosure rates, but we don’t often get to hear the human side.

Our conversation, recorded at my dining room table, covers everything from the mortgage crisis, to job hunting successes and failures, to the personal decisions our participants have had to made because times are tight.

WBEZ’s Steve Edwards and I are the co-hosts You can listen live at WBEZ’s Web site. “Getting Live” airs at noon Central Time on Monday, Dec. 26.


Midwest Memo: African-American Spending Power, Rail Aftershock, New Cleveland Flights

African-American Influence: The number of African-American households earning $75,000 or more grew by 64% between 2000 and 2009 — 12% faster than the overall population’s earning growth, a new survey by the Nielsen Co. shows, according to Crain’s Chicago Business. African-American women, particularly, are boosting their earning power. The percentage of black women who attended some college or earned a degree increased to 53%, compared with 44% for black men. Though the numbers are national, they signal a socioeconomic shift for cities with significant black populations, such as Chicago and Detroit, Crain’s said.

Detroit Light Rail Aftershock: Business leaders in Detroit are feeling the aftershock of the government’s abrupt decision this week to cancel a light rail project, the Detroit News said. The leaders say they were not consulted by the Transportation Department, which scrapped the $500 million project in favor of high-speed buses. Given the time and effort that city businesses and leaders committed to the project, they were owed a discussion before the announcement was made, the Detroit Downtown Development Partnership said in a letter released today.

New Cleveland Flights: Delta Air Lines is adding 10 new daily flights between Cleveland’s Hopkins International Airport and LaGuardia Airport in New York City. According to the Cleveland Plain-Dealer, the flights begin July 11. The first will be at 6:45 a.m. and the last at 7 p.m. The Delta service joins five flights a day by American Airlines, and 12 a day by United Airlines, which assumed Continental Airlines’ hub in Cleveland when the airlines merged last year. Delta said its creation of a LaGuardia hub is the largest single airline expansion in New York in more than 40 years.


Detroit Asks, What Are High Speed Buses? Cleveland Can Tell You All About Them

Detroiters were more than a little perplexed this week at the news the city wouldn’t be getting a long-sought light rail system. Instead, the Transportation Department has recommended a high-speed bus transit system for the Motor City, even though $25 million had already been allocated for light rail.

Cleveland bus/Jerry Masek, RTA, via The New York Sun

Fast buses? Like the one in the movie Speed? Well, not exactly.

High-speed buses run in dedicated lanes that bring to mind streetcar tracks, except much cheaper and easier to install.

They’re operating just a couple hours’ drive away from Detroit, in downtown Cleveland, one of a growing number of American cities that have installed them. There, HealthLine buses glide along Euclid Avenue and out to the famous Cleveland Clinic.

Rather than hail a bus, and pay as they enter, riders buy tickets, then hop on and hop off. The platform is the same height as the bus, making the ride easier for the elderly or disabled. The buses have their own traffic lights, which allow them to avoid snarled traffic.

Our Dan Bobkoff took a look at Cleveland’s transit system earlier this year for Marketplace. In Cleveland, the rapid bus system cost $200 million; a light rail system would have cost $800 million.

But proponents of light rail systems say they can do more for development than rapid bus systems — something that Detroit can definitely use.

“There’s a distinction between public transit as economic development — which was the great hope for light rail — and public transit as a basic service to move people from homes to jobs,” Stephen Henderson, the editorial page editor of The Detroit Free Press, wrote this week.

Would you have preferred to see light rail for Detroit? How do you feel about rapid bus transit?


A Latino Blue Collar Ceiling in Chicago?

Conventional wisdom is that the U.S.-born children of immigrants should fare better than their parents, with better education and higher paying jobs. But a new study from the Latino Policy Forum shows that’s not the case in Chicago – especially among Mexican-Americans, who are still stuck in the same low-wage jobs as their foreign-born parents.

Leticia Tejada/New Journalism on Latino Children Project

With the sheer size of the Latino workforce – three out of five new entrants into the workforce over the past decade – that has implications for Chicago’s entire economy, said Latino Policy Forum Director Sylvia Puente, who added Chicago needs to act now to ensure that the metropolitan area’s future workforce remains economically vibrant.

“The question we’re asking is, is there a Latino blue collar ceiling in Chicago because we’re seeing limited economic mobility, between native-born workers and immigrant workers of Mexican origin – the majority are in sales, manufacturing and construction,” Puente said.

Continue reading “A Latino Blue Collar Ceiling in Chicago?”

Illinois’ November Unemployment Rate Drops By A Hair

Yesterday, we told you that Michigan’s unemployment rate dropped below 10 percent in November for the first time in three years. Now comes word that Illinois’ jobless rate also dropped last month, and the state added jobs in November, although not as many as it has been adding.

Illinois’ unemployment rate was 10 percent, down from 10.1 percent in October. The state, which has been adding an average of 6,000 jobs a month this year, added only 600 jobs in November.

Although Illinois officials said the state has added jobs in eight of the past 11 months, the state’s unemployment rate is actually up from 9.4 percent in November a year ago.

The national unemployment rate is 8.6 percent.

On Wednesday, Michigan officials said their state’s jobless rate was 9.8 percent last month, according to the state Department of Technology, Management and Budget. A year ago, the Michigan jobless rate was 11.4 percent.


Midwest Memo: Industrial Production Drops, Donations Fall, School Protests

Industrial Output: Production from the nation’s factories fell in November, dragged down by the automobile industry, the Federal Reserve said today. The 0.2 percent decline followed a rise in industry output during October. The Fed said the output of motor vehicles and parts fell 3.4 percent in November, while mining and utilities rose. The capacity utilization at American factories, which reflects how full they are running, fell to 77.8 percent in November. That is still up 2 percent from a year ago, but it is below the average for 1972 through 2010, the Fed said.

Donations Fall: Charities in the Detroit area are concerned at a drop in donations over the holidays, according to the Detroit News. The Salvation Army has raised only $3 million of its $8.2 million goal, with nine days left for bell ringers across the metropolitan area. Easter Seals, which holds five raffles a year, came up $50,000 short on its November raffle. It sold only 3,500 of the 5,000 tickets it aims to sell. One group that’s on track is the Gleaners Community Food of Southeastern Michigan, which is set to reach a quarterly goal of $5.2 million in donations.

School Protests: About 50 protestors in Chicago shut down a meeting of the Chicago Board of Education, upset over the city’s plans to close and consolidate schools. District officials want to close five under performing schools, gradually close two more and turn around 10 troubled schools. The protestors included parents, community activists, current and former teachers, and members of the Occupy Chicago movement. The meeting was abruptly adjourned after the protestors interrupted a presentation by schools chief Jean-Claude Brizard.