GE Brings Bad Things to Life
Until the whip came down, IBEW Local 2249 was like a lot of local unions: satisfied if the wages rose and the grievances got filed and the overtime kept coming. With those certainties shattered, the choice becomes resistance or resignation. The local's former president Carven Thomas spoke for the latter when he said, "Let me work while I can work. We need to let it go because the jobs are gone."
Thomas was only following in the tradition of GE's unions over the period of Jack Welch's scorched-earth campaign against their members. Since 1991, union representation in GE's US operations has fallen 14 percentage points. In terms of work force lost, plant figures from 1984 to 1999 read like casualties of war: Bridgeport, 85 percent; Burlington, 100; Cleveland, 95; Everett, Massachusetts, 100; Hickory, North Carolina, 100; Holland, Michigan, 100; Louisville, 53; Lynn, Massachusetts, 64; Memphis, 60; Philadelphia, 69; Pittsfield, 99; Providence, 63; Rome, Georgia, 100; Syracuse, 100; Youngstown, 100. (This is a partial list. Figures like 99, 95, 85 percent represent GE's penchant for keeping a skeleton crew for maintenance or security; that way it's not a "plant closing," and the company avoids paying for severance or retraining.)
For all that experience, each newly assaulted GE local finds itself having to figure out how to struggle as if it were the first. There's a feeling expressed in Bloomington that the work force may have only begun to bleed. Talking in the parking lot one night after the second shift, workers acknowledged that GE is investing $100 million to build new energy-efficient models there, then noted the opportunity for tax write-offs and the plant manager's warning that investments beyond that are "ours to win or lose." Not one of about a dozen workers believed the plant would be open after 2003, when the present national contract expires. "And what'll you do then?" No one knew. No one had a good word for the International union. About Local 2249's leadership, they were fiercely divided.
It's easy to romanticize the rank and file until you meet them. Then they're as self-interested and unheroic as most people, and as uncomfortable with change, as timid in the face of what they perceive to be an unstoppable force. Decades of business unionism and almost total unfamiliarity with a culture of struggle--few remember the great GE national strike of 1969--have only reinforced what, after all, is very ordinary behavior. IBEW locals lay down when Westinghouse closed, when RCA closed. Local 2249 was ready to lie down too. But a fresh team took leadership, and they are ruffling feathers by asking the extraordinary.
"Why are the 1,800 [whose jobs will remain] not supporting the 1,400? Why were those 1,400 just laying down?" asks local vice president Ruth Ann Vaught, a taut woman formerly on the door line, with a knowing smile and a will that you wouldn't want to be opposite. "I told them, 'What the hell have you got to lose? Stand up, be a supporter, fight for your job.'"
Almost as soon as she and president Steve Norman took office, in July of 1999, they were blindsided. New federal energy standards would raise production costs, management said; two Bloomington lines would have to be built in Mexico--unless the union could come up with the aforementioned $65 million in savings. The previous local leadership and IBEW HQ in Washington had known about this but hadn't bothered to tell anyone. The International hadn't wanted to take a militant stand in national contract negotiations either. Within the Coordinated Bargaining Committee, which negotiates national contracts covering GE's thirteen unions, the IBEW was "a reluctant partner" when preliminary planning for the contract was beginning in early 1999, according to a well-placed CBC figure who asked to be nameless. "They didn't want a public campaign against GE; they worried about retaliation."
When Norman and Vaught, with no prior experience in such things, began bargaining to save jobs and money, they got no assistance from Washington HQ. "We had to wing it," Vaught says. Worker committees proposed efficiency measures, production adjustments, changes to reduce injuries (thus lost-time costs) and so on. They calculated these to be worth $188 million. At about the same time, GE was threatening International Union of Electrical Workers (IUE) Local 761 at its "Appliance Park" in Louisville with a similar extortion scheme. There, the union sacrificed 400 jobs, changed work rules and took wage increases as bonuses rather than as additions to the base pay. GE agreed to keep the threatened production line in Louisville. It got no similar concessions in Bloomington, declared only about $40 million of the union's proposals valid, and now it's off to Celaya. Local 2249 just didn't meet the goal, GE spokesman Terry Dunn says, plain and simple, his voice thick with disdain.