In St. Cloud, longtime Electrolux plant going quiet

People cross the street after leaving a building.
Workers leaving Electrolux during a shift change cross 33rd Avenue North in St. Cloud Tuesday.
Paul Middlestaedt for MPR News

Every afternoon at 3:30 p.m., the doors of St. Cloud’s Electrolux plant open and workers stream out, carrying lunch boxes or coolers. Traffic on 33rd Avenue grinds to a halt, as employees head to their cars or homes nearby.

On Friday, the daily ritual at this factory — where over the past century, workers have assembled cars, battery chargers, refrigerators, dryers and more recently, freezers — will come to a close. Electrolux is shutting down production at the plant, and most of its roughly 750 workers will be laid off.

It will be the end of an era for the north St. Cloud property that has been a manufacturing hub for more than a century. And while the closure will have a profound impact on the lives of the Electrolux workers — many of whom have spent their whole careers at the plant — many expect the wider St. Cloud community to feel its economic ripple effects.

Stockholm-based Electrolux announced in January 2018 that it had plans to close the St. Cloud plant by the end of 2019. The news came as a shock to workers and city officials.

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But the unusual two-year advance warning gave them time to prepare and plan, a rare gift to a region that has already weathered mass layoffs or closures at the Verso paper mill in 2012, Quad/Graphics in 2014 and Fingerhut in 2002.

The Electrolux site is on the footprint of the original Pan Motor Company, which Louis Johnston, an economist at the College of St. Benedict and St. John's University, called “one man’s dream to be the next Henry Ford of St. Cloud.”

Pan Motor Company, St. Cloud
Headquarters of the Pan Motor Company in St. Cloud, sometime in the first half of the 20th century. The company sat on the same site in St. Cloud where Electrolux, which is closing this week, has stood for roughly 70 years.
Courtesy Minnesota Historical Society

That dream didn't quite work out. Founder Sam Pandolfo served time in federal prison for fraud. The plant changed ownership and names several times, from Franklin Manufacturing Co. to WCI to Frigidaire, then to Electrolux.

At its peak, the plant employed 1,700 people. That number had dropped to about 860 by 2018 when Electrolux announced the closure, but it remains among St. Cloud’s largest private employers.

‘No control’

The plant manufactured upright freezers, as well as chest freezers until phasing out their production in part due to declining consumer demand.

Other factors at play with Electrolux’s decision to consolidate its freezer production in Anderson, S.C., aren't unique to St. Cloud, Johnston said.

Assembly line jobs are being reduced due to automation, and global companies are moving their operations to places where labor is cheaper, like southern U.S. states or overseas.

"This is happening across small- and medium-sized cities all across the United States,” Johnston said. “You have a manufacturing plant that's very important to that community — that in a sense that community built itself around — and now it's going away."

St. Cloud Mayor Dave Kleis said city officials tried to reach out regularly to Electrolux headquarters, but in the end, they had “no control” over the decision the company made.

“This is a foreign-owned company,” Kleis said. “They make a decision. It’s a private decision. It’s made not at the local level, and it is no reflection on the employees.”’

One-third of St. Cloud’s top 30 employers are now headquartered outside of Minnesota, said Cathy Mehelich, the city’s economic development director. She said that makes it crucial that city officials stay in touch with top decision-makers at those companies.

Whatever the reasons, the Electrolux plant closing will be a blow to the local economy. King Banaian, dean of St. Cloud State University’s School of Public Affairs, studied the likely ripple effects and estimated the real job loss will be well beyond the 750 positions that will be eliminated at the plant and closer to 1,800 jobs, as grocery stores, restaurants and retail stores lose customers.

Banaian, who lives near Electrolux, said he would often drive by and see a mobile food truck parked in front, selling snacks to plant workers.

“That's one less stop that the canteen truck will have in November,” he said.

Loyal workforce

Banaian also studied Electrolux workers and found more than half are age 50 or older, and many have spent the majority of their careers at Electrolux.

“There are people who’ve made their lives there who are impacted by this,” he said.

Most of the plant workers don't have a college degree, and some never graduated from high school.

The jobs were stable and paid wages around $15 to $20 an hour, with benefits and a pension. For someone walking out of high school today, Banaian said, those types of jobs are much harder to find.

"Fifty years ago, that would've been enough to support what we would have called a middle-class lifestyle,” he said.

Electrolux was also known for hiring new immigrants with limited education or English skills.

It also hired couples: The plant ran three shifts, which meant one parent could work while another stayed home with the kids. Because of its location right in St. Cloud, workers could find affordable housing nearby and could walk or take the bus to work.

For longtime workers like Joe Baratta, who’s been at Electrolux for 11 years, the closure is life-changing. Baratta was just settling into a new position as the union shop chairperson in January 2018 when the news came that the plant would close.

Two people stand in front of a white building.
Joe and Ashley Baratta stand in front of the Electrolux facility in St. Cloud last month. The two have been preparing for the loss of Joe's job at Electrolux and the impact it will have on their family.
Kirsti Marohn | MPR News

"I just bought a new vehicle,” he said. “Actually, I hadn't even made the first payment.”

A couple weeks later, the company announced it would stop production at the St. Cloud plant by the end of this year.

“That was difficult to hear it was closing,” said his wife, Ashley Baratta. “It was rough.”

Losing their health insurance was the Barattas’ biggest concern. Joe, 32, is a cancer survivor, and one of their two sons was born prematurely and suffers from hearing loss. So Ashley said she had to change jobs to get health coverage for the family.

The waiting period has been stressful, said Chad Randall, a health and safety representative for the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers Local 623 and a 27-year Electrolux employee. Many employees haven’t left the plant yet because of a severance payment they will receive for staying until the closure, he said.

“This past year, waiting for it to all end — it kind of wears on you, because we can’t move on with our lives,” Randall said.

Need for workers

There's never a good time to be laid off, but now is probably better than most. Like many cities, St. Cloud has low unemployment, Mayor Kleis said.

“Most of what we hear right now is all of our employers are looking for employees,” he said. The city’s focus has shifted from trying to attract new businesses to making St. Cloud a livable place so workers will want to move there — and stay, he said.

There's especially strong demand for workers in health care and certain types of manufacturing. But not all Electrolux employees have the skills to transfer into those jobs.

City officials said it’s been helpful that Electrolux announced the closing almost two years ago. That unusual advance notice gave them time to prepare. They received a federal grant to help with economic recovery and retraining the displaced workers.

Tammy Biery, executive director of Career Solutions, a St. Cloud employment agency leading the retraining effort, has been helping Electrolux workers explore new potential career paths ranging from truck driving to health care.

Biery said some of the Electrolux workers spent their entire lives on the assembly line, and lack basic computer knowledge.

"This is a new concept to them,” she said. “Really, any job you apply for nowadays requires more than a resumé or filling out a paper application. Paper applications have gone to the wayside. So in order to apply for a job you do need to have computer skills."

Joe Baratta was one of three dozen plant workers who enrolled in an industrial apprenticeship program that Electrolux allowed to be held at the plant so workers could take them before or after their shifts. He graduated in September — and hopes the training will give him a head start on an automotive degree.

Baratta said as the closure date this week draws near, most plant workers have accepted it and are making plans for the future. Still, he worries that a few are not adequately prepared.

“It hasn’t fully sunk in,” he said. “There’s a lot of opportunity, and I don’t want them to skip it because they kind of tunnel-visioned that it wasn’t happening.”

As for whether the longtime manufacturing plant could one day make products again, it's too early to say. An Electrolux spokesperson said the company is still evaluating next steps for the 40-acre property.