Oshkosh postal truck contract becomes political flashpoint, singes Johnson

Environmental questions, South Carolina plant site put project under fire

By: - February 8, 2022 7:00 am
Postal delivery vehicle

U.S. Postal Service Next Generation Delivery Vehicle (Photo via USPS)

Blowback to Oshkosh Corp.’s plan to build postal trucks at a new plant in South Carolina, creating up to 1,000 jobs there instead of at the company’s home state factory in Wisconsin, spread Monday after Sen. Ron Johnson said he wouldn’t get involved in the company’s decision.

U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson addresses the Soldiers of the Wisconsin Army National Guard's Battery B, 1st Battalion, 121st Field Artillery Oct. 18, 2018 at the Experimental Aircraft Association in Oshkosh, Wis. Wisconsin National Guard photo by Vaughn R. Larson
U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson (Wisconsin National Guard photo | Vaughn R. Larson)

“It’s not like we don’t have enough jobs here in Wisconsin,” Johnson said at a Saturday event when he was asked whether he would urge company officials to build the vehicles in Wisconsin. “The biggest problem we have in Wisconsin right now is employers not being able to find enough workers.”

In the days since, Democrats vying to challenge Johnson in the November election have called out the Republican senator for not stepping in to persuade the truck manufacturer to abandon its plan for a non-union, out-of-state factory to build the new vehicles.

One Democratic Senate hopeful, Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes, sent a letter Monday to Oshkosh Truck’s management, urging the company to source the project in its namesake city, where employees are represented by the United Auto Workers union.

Three others also seeking the Democratic nomination for the race — State Treasurer Sarah Godlewski, Outagamie County Executive Thomas Nelson and Alex Lasry, a Milwaukee Bucks executive on leave — issued statements castigating Johnson’s hands-off stance as well.

Oshkosh Defense, an Oshkosh Corp. subsidiary, won the 10-year contract to build a new generation of postal trucks almost a year ago. In June, the company announced that it would convert a warehouse in Spartanburg, S.C., into a factory to build the trucks and would employ about 1,000 people there. The contract is valued at up to $11 billion.

The project hit a speed bump in Washington, D.C., last week when officials at the Environmental Protection Agency and the White House Council on Environmental Quality wrote to the U.S. Postal Service, urging that it hold off on the plan. The agencies warned that it relies mostly on internal combustion vehicles instead of electric power, in conflict with the Biden administration’s goals for combating climate change.

But Oshkosh Corp.’s decision to source the project in the south instead of at home in Wisconsin has already been under fire from the UAW and allies for months. As part of its efforts to relocate the work to Oshkosh, the union last year challenged a postal service environmental impact statement for the project.

In 2018, the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. (WEDC) awarded $8 million in tax credits to expand Oshkosh Corp. to build a new headquarters in the city.

State Rep. Gordon Hintz

“When we made a commitment to get Oshkosh Corporation and their corporate headquarters located in Oshkosh, the positive news was that we were going to make it more likely that we were going to maintain the production of vehicles in this area as well,” State Rep. Gordon Hintz (D-Oshkosh), said Monday at a news conference called by the Barnes campaign.

Hintz’s district includes the company’s Wisconsin workers as well as local manufacturers and other suppliers in the area, “whose business depends directly on the contracts and the production that occurs at Oshkosh Corporation,” he said.

He characterized the company’s union workforce in Oshkosh as an asset for the project. “What’s really built the middle class, what’s really given stability, what’s really made us more recession proof than a lot of other communities is that we’ve had these contracts and we’ve had the workforce to do it,” Hintz said.

Johnson’s remarks Saturday followed a rally in Washington County. Asked about the campaign to move the work to Oshkosh, Johnson said he would leave the choice of where to build the truck up to the company, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

“I wouldn’t insert myself to demand that anything be manufactured here using federal funds in Wisconsin,” he said. “Obviously I’m supportive of it. But in the end, I think when using federal tax dollars, you want to spend those in the most efficient way and if it’s more efficient, more effective to spend those in other states, I don’t have a real problem with that.”

Sen. Tammy Baldwin as well as four of Johnson’s prospective Democratic challengers responded sharply after news reports of his comment, all vowing to go to bat for putting the plant in Wisconsin.

“Ron Johnson doesn’t give a damn about Wisconsin workers,” said Godlewski in a statement her campaign put out Sunday — substituting “damn” for a Bowdlerized excretory epithet she had tweeted two hours earlier from her campaign account. “A U.S. Senator should fight tooth and nail to bring good jobs and taxpayer dollars back to our state, instead, he’s just giving up,” her statement added.

Nelson’s campaign said he has written WEDC to ask if the company’s 2018 tax credits could be suspended. The campaign said it has posted a new billboard charging that Johnson “is only out to serve himself, not us” — located near the Senator’s Oshkosh home.

“It’s beyond disgraceful that multimillionaire Ron Johnson says he won’t lift a finger to help create 1,000 good paying, family-supporting jobs right in his own backyard of Oshkosh,” Nelson stated Monday.

Lasry’s campaign released a statement to the Associated Press calling Johnson’s remarks “just another example of how out of touch he is with Wisconsinites.”

Barnes, meanwhile, sent letters Monday from his campaign to the company as well as to the White House and Congress.

“Corporations aren’t doing this because they’re more skilled in South Carolina,” Barnes said at his virtual news conference. “We have some of the best and most skilled workers right here in Wisconsin. The men and women at UAW local 578 they’ve been building the highest quality vehicles for the Oshkosh Corporation for nearly 100 years. Now they’re denying jobs to Wisconsin workers because they don’t want to pay for skilled union labor.”

In his letter to Oshkosh executives, Barnes urged them “to reconsider” their South Carolina plan and put the work in Wisconsin at the company’s union-represented operations. “Failing to take advantage of this highly-skilled workforce is bad for business and bad for the Wisconsin workers who have been an essential part of the Oshkosh Corporation’s success for years,” he wrote.

In the other letter, Barnes called on President Joe Biden and Congressional leaders “to do everything in your power to reverse this decision.”

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Erik Gunn
Erik Gunn

Deputy Editor Erik Gunn reports and writes on work and the economy, health policy and related subjects, for the Wisconsin Examiner. He spent 24 years as a freelance writer for Milwaukee Magazine, Isthmus, The Progressive, BNA Inc., and other publications, winning awards for investigative reporting, feature writing, beat coverage, business writing, and commentary. An East Coast native, he previously covered labor for The Milwaukee Journal after reporting for newspapers in upstate New York and northern Illinois. He's a graduate of Beloit College (English Comp.) and the Columbia School of Journalism. Off hours he is the Examiner's resident Springsteen and Jackson Browne fanboy and model railroad nerd.

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