Workers, supporters fight GE’s toxic effects on community

Photo: Joe Lombardo

Photo: Joe Lombardo

Fort Edward, N.Y. — Nearly 200 miles of the Hudson River is a toxic waste site. Once, the fish in the river provided food for people who lived along its banks, but today the fish that still remain in the river are toxic.

In fact, the Environmental Protection Agency has designated this area the largest Superfund site in the country. Superfund is the federal government’s program to clean up uncontrolled hazardous waste sites. (epa.gov)

The poisoning of the Hudson River was done by the General Electric Co., which dumped more than 1 million pounds of polychlorinated biphenyl (PCBs) into the river from its two capacitor plants in the towns of Hudson Falls and Fort Edward, north of Albany, N.Y. PCBs were determined to be toxic and banned by the EPA in 1977.

Today, GE is dumping something else from these plants: its workers. The Hudson Falls plant is now closed, and GE has announced that it will close the Fort Edward plant and move its operations to Clearwater, Fla., a so-called “right to work” state where workers will be paid Walmart-like wages of $8 to $13 per hour in a nonunion plant. Workers at the Fort Edward plant, who are represented by the Electrical Workers (UE) Local 332, earn an average of $26.50 an hour.

The Fort Edward and Hudson Falls plants are not the first that GE has closed. A UE official has compiled a list of 43 other GE plants that have closed in the U.S. since 2008 or are in the process of closing. He believes this list is not complete.

Much of the operations from these plants have been moved overseas. The former longtime CEO of GE, Jack Welch, once made the famous statement that “ideally you’d have every plant you own on a barge,” meaning that they would be ready to move it if workers make too many demands, or if foreign countries place too many restrictions on their operations.

GE’s corporate website boasts of having plants in 130 countries around the world. They have become adept at avoiding taxes by generating the bulk of their profits overseas. As a result, GE, which is ranked by Forbes Global 2000 as the fourth-largest company in the world, paid no U.S. taxes in 2010. (New York Times, March 24, 2011)

In 2011, President Barack Obama rewarded GE and tapped GE CEO Jeffrey Immelt to head the “President’s Council on Jobs and Competitiveness.”

GE, the huge industrial giant, has also been transforming itself into something else. Its financial services operation, GE Capital, is the fourth-largest commercial bank in the U.S. Like other banks during the financial crisis of 2008, it received its handout — a government bailout of around $55 billion in low-interest debt securities.

Workers, community fights back

The Fort Edward plant, which once employed 2,500 people, is now down to around 200 workers. But the workers and their union are not giving up their jobs without a fight. Local 332 voted unanimously to put the entire financial resources of their local into the fight.

Two plant gate rallies were each attended by some 500 people. Townspeople and other union members from the entire area joined the protests. People driving by the rallies created a crescendo of honking horns to show their support.

The Fort Edward plant is the backbone of the economy for the town, and the people of the entire area have joined the struggle. Throughout the town of Fort Edward, lawn signs in people’s yards and along the major roads read, “Don’t let GE dump jobs.”

The union has organized Solidarity Saturdays, where they bring petitions to the surrounding neighborhoods to be signed. They have petitioned at big events, such as a recent Phish concert in the area. They have also approached politicians, including New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who they said has done nothing to help them.

GE’s contract with UE mandates a one-year notice before a plant closing and a 60-day “decision bargaining” period after the notice has been given. During this period, the two sides are to negotiate to find an alternative to the plant closing.

That 60-day period is now over. The union proposed an early retirement program and public financing of new equipment, but GE has rejected these proposals and will move ahead with the plant closing by next September.

It is difficult for any local union to fight a corporation like GE when it wants to shut down a plant. The drive for profit is unrelenting, and politicians always support the property rights of the corporations over the needs of the workers and their communities.

It is only through solidarity that we can bring the weight of all working people to bear on the process and oppose a company like GE. Instead of the two parties of capital, we need a Labor Party that can fight for laws that will outlaw such plant closings and allow all of us in society to collectively make these important decisions that affect our lives.

Lombardo is a member of Civil Service Employees Association retirees Local 99 and the Troy Area Labor Council, and the co-coordinator of the United National Antiwar Coalition.