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Sen. Ron Johnson tries applying brakes to idea of requiring postal vehicles to be built in Wisconsin

Sen. Ron Johnson speaks at a rally.
Chuck Quirmbach
Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson listens to a question at a Parent Empowerment Rally on Feb. 5 in Richfield, Wisconsin.

A dispute over whether to have a Wisconsin company build a new fleet of U.S. mail delivery vehicles in Wisconsin has entered this year's Senate race.

About a year ago, the Postal Service reached a huge agreement to have the Oshkosh Corp. build up to 165,000 vehicles. Later, the firm announced it would build them at a plant in South Carolina and hire 1,000 people. Labor unions and Wisconsin Democratic U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin protested, saying United Auto Workers members at the corporation plant in Oshkosh should do the work.

Last week, a new development happened: the EPA and White House asked the Postal Service to halt purchases under the contract, saying USPS needs to better address "serious deficiencies" in the contract's environmental impact statement and put it up for public comment.

One issue is whether a lot more of the vehicles should be electric instead of gasoline-powered.

Over the weekend, Wisconsin Republican Sen. Ron Johnson, from Oshkosh and running for reelection this year, was asked if the postal vehicles should be built here.

He said, "Well, obviously, I'm supportive of manufacturing here in Wisconsin. But at the same time, I also recognize that manufacturers have different capabilities elsewhere. It's not like we don't have enough jobs here in Wisconsin. The biggest problem we have here in Wisconsin is employers not being able to find enough workers."

Johnson turned to the topic of federal funds paying for the new fleet of vehicles and said: "In the end, when using federal tax dollars, you want to spend those in the most efficient way, and if it's more effective, more efficient to spend those in another state, I don't have a real problem with that."

U.S. Postal Service delivery vehicles outside the West Allis post office.
Chuck Quirmbach
U.S. Postal Service delivery vehicles outside the West Allis post office.

At least two of Johnson's Democratic opponents in this year's Senate election do have a problem with that. Outagamie County Executive Tom Nelson said it's clear the Oshkosh Corp. is trying to switch more jobs to less unionized states like South Carolina.

"This is a big problem, and we need to have a U.S. senator who recognizes this problem and knows how important it is to have good manufacturing jobs because this is how Wisconsinites have put food on their table, a roof over their heads. Once again, Ron Johnson has completely checked out. If we can't expect him to stand up for jobs in his own hometown, we can't expect him to stand up for anyone," Nelson told WUWM.

Another Democrat running for Senate, State Treasurer Sarah Godlewski, issued a press release stating, “Ron Johnson doesn’t give a damn about Wisconsin workers. 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."

An Oshkosh Corp. press release last year said, “Upstate South Carolina has a skilled workforce and a proven history in advanced automotive manufacturing."

But The Guardian news outlet reported last week that labor unions in Wisconsin plan a rally to keep the heat on the company to build in the Badger State.

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