GE Brings Bad Things to Life
In hindsight, maybe Norman and Vaught shouldn't have played the cost-cutting game. As Richard Segalini, vice president of GE's appliances division, would later clarify for them, "Cooperation is worth zero dollars." But they had to choose from among the available options, and the union's history is such that taking action at the point of production or taking the street weren't the first things that came to mind. Also, Norman--a longhaired, bearded, self-confessed hothead who'd previously served as president--thought the company was counting on an emotional refusal. Cooperation may be worthless, but a union's noncooperation can be worth a fortune in corporate public relations.
Every area of struggle creates opportunities, though, and if the cost-savings exercise delayed more aggressive action--and gave managers the benefit of the workers' knowledge free of charge--it also inspired some collective spirit within the shop. People like Abbott started talking to co-workers, learning about GE, about Mexico, filling notebooks with ideas and recognizing the value of their labor. When the company said they'd come up short, in December of 1999, it raised within them a righteous anger.
It was then that Norman sought help from the community--from Jobs With Justice, the religious folk, the No Sweat! organizers at the university and activist professors. Last March those forces picketed outside the plant. In April Norman put out a memo with the words to "Solidarity Forever" and a kind of manifesto linking GE to Nike, the WTO and the IMF's mission of "imposing austerity on Mexican workers through no less than seven 'structural adjustment agreements'...[whose] effect has been the drastic lowering of the standard of living of Mexican workers." Independently, Abbott and a couple of other workers traveled to Washington for the A16 protest against the IMF and World Bank. At a demonstration against GE in Bloomington on April 29, Abbott wore a suit, marched with veterans and spoke in public for the first time. He's not alone in expressing a sometimes contradictory mix of union radicalism, nationalism, loyalty betrayed and sprouting internationalism. Vaught cuts to the chase for members who might be confused or worse about Mexican workers: "They're not taking your job, brother. They're not taking your job, sister. The company moved there; they're just applying for a job. When GE called you, you went because you needed a job. And I have a problem with workers working in a shop for almost nothing, in unsafe conditions and then going home to a shanty shack because they have no alternative." It's not just GE that's at issue; it's the Mexican minimum wage of $3.75 a day that makes GE's wage of $2 an hour seem fabulous.
But confrontation is unsettling. For every Bill Abbott there's at least one worker like the woman who told me her fight was not with GE but with Steve Norman for riling people up, and more who are just passive or afraid. It's an object lesson in the difficulty of building solidarity even in one union, let alone nationally and internationally.
In July the GE national contract, which brought a lot of money but no substantive gains on job security, was approved overwhelmingly in Bloomington, as elsewhere in the country. The local contract, which covers plant conditions and procedures, was rejected overwhelmingly. The 1,400 jobs were not expressly on the table but figured into the union's resolve. The No vote meant going back to the table, and because management had insisted its offer was final, there was the possibility of a strike. But soon after the vote, the IBEW district representative told Norman and Vaught that union HQ in Washington had been getting calls from members of the local complaining they hadn't understood the issues. Norman was ordered to take a second vote. If he didn't, he says, the International "made it clear that they wouldn't sanction a strike. That means it would have been an illegal strike; I wouldn't do that to my people." Second time around the local contract passed narrowly.
What happened? Maybe people hadn't been prepared well enough. Maybe they pondered the prospect of a strike and got scared. Maybe the International, which isn't in the habit of supporting strikes, got scared. But by ordering a revote--and presenting no evidence that it had, in fact, been inundated with complaints--the International undermined the local leadership. Now the bitterness in the plant between those who supported Norman and those who didn't is sharp, presenting the fighting side with one more formidable hurdle. Bobby Roberts, head of the International's manufacturing division in Washington, referred questions on Local 2249 to the vice president of the sixth district, Jeremiah O'Connor, who said there was nothing unusual about interference from on high in local votes, and when I tried to press the conversation, said, "I think you're bullshitting, lady," and slammed down the phone.