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Jobs Watch: A surprise win for the harbor

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Ben Jacklet
Tuesday, September 29, 2009
There’s good news and then there’s REALLY good news. Daimler’s decision to keep making trucks in Portland isn’t just a reprieve for the hundreds of people who work for Daimler and the companies that feed into that truck-building machine. It is a vote of confidence for the industrial harbor that Portland was built on.

The harbor has been losing jobs steadily over the past decade due to cheaper labor costs overseas and the environmental uncertainties that go with a Superfund listing. But the harbor remains vital to the regional economy, a place where people without college educations can get good jobs to support their families building barges, pumps, rail cars and trucks. Some of these jobs have moved to Mexico, but a lot remain here. Manufacturing powerhouses such as Schnitzer Steel, Esco, Gunderson and Vigor Industrial give Portland “a manufacturing base in this city that most mayors would give their left arms for,” in the words of Mayor Sam Adams.

That manufacturing base has been devastated by the Great Recession, with Evraz’s former Oregon Steel plant cutting back operations and Gunderson Marine struggling with a contentious dispute with General Electric. The most ominous news of all was the announcement that Daimler planned to shift its manufacturing operations to North Carolina and Mexico. The decision to stay in Portland came as a huge surprise — and for a change, it was a pleasant surprise. Difficult union negotiations no doubt lay ahead, but for now, hundreds of good jobs are saved. The smaller companies that feed into the long-established Freightliner economy in Portland have a reason to stay in business, and the German executives who run Daimler have another reason to keep their North American headquarters in Portland, along with all of the engineering, IT and financial jobs based here.

Of all of the losses Oregon’s economy has suffered over the past year, none have been bigger in my mind than the impending closure of the Daimler manufacturing plant and the shutting down of the Hynix plant in Eugene. Who would have thought that both rocket-propelled grenades would be dodged in the same week? South Korea-based Uni-CHEM plans to buy the former Hynix plant for $50 million and rush into the solar energy business, employing as many as 1,000 people in Eugene. Unlike with Daimler, those jobs are theoretical at this point, but the news that they may arrive soon is most welcome indeed.

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