GE Brings Bad Things to Life
In situations of mass layoff, every worker is affected. Those out of work or soon to be are suddenly facing an unexpected burden on top of all the familiar ones. Despite a year and a half of threats and announcements to the contrary, GE has now informed the government in writing that technically it "has not shifted production to Mexico" but simply "intends to import from a corporation in Mexico"; thus, the newly jobless are not entitled to training, extended unemployment benefits, relocation and job-search assistance under Title V of the NAFTA Implementation Act. As for the still-employed, those with the most seniority in mothballed production areas are being reassigned to the lines that remain, creating a "bump" that reshuffles hundreds of workers to different jobs--no doubt affecting productivity and perhaps the rate of injuries, already at one a day, according to Vaught. The local is struggling to find its feet: first, to assist those losing their jobs and to counter GE's latest action; then to create some vehicle to repair relations in the plant, improve communication, educate the membership, build power to defend the remaining jobs before they're threatened. The militants need to build a base, to take some of the heat off Norman--to transcend, as the labor anthem goes, "the feeble strength of one."
There are building blocks for a labor/community coalition: Jackie Yenna, president of the White River Central Labor Council and an assembly worker at GE, has a formal relationship with the local head of Jobs With Justice, and Norman has been talking with people from JWJ nationally and with GE militants elsewhere. There are bigger dreams of solidarity. "If the Mexicans are going to make our product, at least we ought to help them fight for the same benefits," says Abbott, who was just voted onto the local's executive board. "It's probably pie in the sky to say we could unionize them, but that's what I'd like to see. But, hell, first we've got to organize our own members."
What will it take to match fire with fire at GE, not just in Bloomington but everywhere? Twenty years ago, Jack Welch openly articulated a strategy for taking the company to where it is today. The GE unions never developed a parallel strategy, and 100,000 lost jobs later, most of them still haven't shed their faith in what the AFL-CIO likes to call "high-road capitalism." During the 2000 national contract talks, Robert Thayer, the Machinists' representative on the CBC, was trying to convince the company to agree not to interfere in future unionization drives, arguing that "a contract is a partnership, not a hindrance." To which the company coolly asserted, "GE has never been neutral and doesn't intend to be neutral."
Now that Welch has said, "Ideally you'd have every plant you own on a barge," the Internationals are beginning to wake up to the fact that they need to be truly international, in orientation and method. For the first time the CBC is undertaking longer-range planning for internal education, outside alliances, international solidarity that goes beyond talk. Coordinated action might deter workers from undercutting one another, both at home and overseas; might develop tactical instruments for mutual aid; might, through public campaigns, strike at one of the company's vulnerabilities: its obsession with the "GE brings good things to life" image. Last fall the IUE merged with the Communications Workers of America, one of the few unions with the resources and expressed desire to take on multinational capital. CWA vice president Larry Cohen says, "The next stage of industrial unionism is community-based unionism. We'll build organizations among workers and our allies all over the country and even internationally. And wherever Welch lands his barge, we'll be there to greet him."
It's in places like Bloomington, though, that the long road to solidarity comes clearest into view. Mayor John Fernandez is probably right that the layoffs will not jolt the city financially; most of the workers live in small towns in surrounding counties, which will take the hard hit. In Linton, thirty-five miles southwest, a GE motors plant made refugees of 135 workers when it shut down in 1994. Some commute to Bloomington and will soon be on the move again. Amid Linton's empty storefronts and struggling shops, a GE Appliances store sells Bloomington's refrigerators and Louisville's washer-dryers. The saleswoman's husband had worked at GE; he now travels forty-five miles to a job in Terre Haute and refuses to allow any GE products in the house. Ruth Ann Vaught insists, "What we need is a coalition of all the GE unions--and all the unions everywhere in the world, actually--saying, 'This is labor; these are our jobs.'" But unions from Bloomington or Louisville or anywhere else didn't surge to the side of the Linton workers, and for now Vaught and Norman and the rest of 2249's smart, tough fighters will have to invent their own united front--in-plant, in-community, even cross-border. "This is not easy," says Jeff Crosby, who heads the North Shore Labor Council and IUE Local 201, representing GE workers in Lynn, Massachusetts. "We have to move from 'I am my brother's keeper,' to 'An injury to one is an injury to all,' to 'Workers of the world, unite!'"
It's not utopian anymore, either; it's pragmatic.