Workers steal the show in TPT’s new Ford plant film

The Twin Cities Assembly Plant in Highland Park is gone, but the stories of people who worked there live on in a new, hour-long documentary airing on Twin Cities PBS stations next week.

In “Made in St. Paul: Stories from the Ford plant,” filmmaker Peter B. Myers covers more than 86 years of Ford Motor Company’s history in St. Paul, from Henry Ford’s decision to build a hydro-powered plant along the Mississippi River to the plant’s final shutdown in December 2011.

The documentary “could’ve been a three-hour show,” Myers said, but focuses in on “the plant’s origins, its engineering and architecture, labor issues, and its impact on the development of the city of St. Paul over an 86-year period.”

Ultimately, Myers said, the film is about the people who made a living inside the plant’s walls. He interviewed dozens of them in nearly two years of work on the project.

“Most of the people I talked to spent pretty much their whole careers at this one plant,” Myers said. “This was their life. And across the board, all the workers I talked to felt a great deal of loyalty to this particular plant and took tremendous pride in the quality of their work.”

That sense of pride showed, as workers consistently made St. Paul Ford’s most productive U.S. facility. Ford’s decision to close stemmed not from personnel issues, but changing market trends and a need to modernize the facility, which would have cost $500 million, according to the company.

Also featured prominently in the film is local historian Brian McMahon, author of “The Ford Century in Minnesota,” published by the University of Minnesota Press in 2016.

Myers met McMahon, credited as the film’s principal researcher, around the time of the Ford plant’s closing. Myers was at work on another film – a deep dive into the history of University Avenue – at the time, but he was immediately drawn to the idea exploring “the legacy of something as big as the Ford plant” and its impact on Highland Park, where he’s lived for more than 30 years.

Myers pitched the idea to TPT as his neighbors engaged in public discussion about what redevelopment of the 135-acre Ford site should look like. The debate served as a reminder of just how unique the Twin Cities Assembly Plant was: an enormous industrial site that shared a neighborhood with mostly upper-middle class homes.

“As I followed what’s going to happen on the site now, I thought we should really tell some of the stories about the plant,” Myers said. “Once these folks are gone, they won’t be able to tell the stories anymore.”

Of course, the union that represented workers at the Ford plant, United Auto Workers Local 879, features prominently in the film. Workers at the plant chartered Local 879 in June 1941, but it wasn’t without a fight, as the film documents.

“We tell the story about how Henry Ford for a long time resisted the efforts of labor to organize in his plants,” Myers said. “Ford was the last of the ‘Big 3’ automakers to allow the UAW into the plants, which he did finally in 1941.”

The result of unionization in St. Paul, he added, was dramatic.

“In the ‘40s and ‘50s, working conditions were pretty challenging, and it wasn’t always a nice place to come to work,” he said. “But over the decades the UAW and Ford really approached the organization of the pant in a joint fashion. By the time you got to the ‘70s and ‘80s, by most accounts, things were working pretty smoothly.”

“Made in St. Paul: Stories from the Ford plant” premieres Monday at 9 p.m. on TPT-2, part of the station’s “Minnesota Experience” series. It will rebroadcast at 8 p.m. Jan. 17 on TPT-LIFE, and be available for streaming on www.tpt.org.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: