There is probably no more "American" corporation than General Electric --
and no company with more of an anational world outlook than GE.
And no company's record better illustrates the glories of corporate
globalization for the well-off, and the misery for the many.
Founded by the American icon Thomas Edison, GE is now headed by Jack
Welch, who has said, "Ideally you'd have every plant you own on a barge"
-- ready to move if any national government tried to impose restraints on
the factories' operations, or if workers demanded better wages and working
While Welch's 20-year reign has been a golden era for shareholders -- the
company's stock value has risen three time more than the Dow average,
leading Forbes magazine to name Welch the "Most Admired CEO of the
Century" -- it has been a disaster for employees.
GE has slashed its U.S. workforce by almost half since 1986. The numbers
are down "because of speed up, downsizing, outsourcing, plant closings,
you name it," says Chris Townsend, political director of the United
Electrical (UE) workers.
GE has globalized its operations by shifting production to low-wage
countries. (And even in these countries, the jobs remain precarious: GE
recently shuttered a factory in Turkey to move it to lower-wage Hungary --
and it has threatened to close a factory in Hungary and move it to India.
Union officials in Malaysia say they fear GE "putting our plant on a barge
and moving to Vietnam," according to InterPress Service.)
Now GE appears no longer satisfied to close its own plants -- it wants to
shut down those of suppliers, too. In a startling memo obtained by
Business Week, GE Aircraft Engines (GEAE) -- a hugely profitable division
-- told suppliers that they would have to move to Mexico if they hoped to
continue their relationship with GE. GEAE has held what it calls "supplier
migration" conferences in Cincinnati, near its headquarters, and in
Monterrey, where an aerospace industrial park is being built.
An internal report on a GEAE meeting with its suppliers says, "GE set the
tone early and succinctly: 'Migrate or be out of business; not a matter of
if, just when. This is not a seminar to provide you information. We expect
you to move and move quickly."
These kind of tactics obviously leave GE's workers (not to mention those
in supplier plants) in a weak negotiating position.
New contract negotiations between GE and its unionized workforce in the
United States are set to begin later this month, with GE's collective
bargaining agreements expiring at the end of June.
In an unusual arrangement that has its origins in the anti-communism that
wreaked the labor movement especially following World War II, 14 U.S.
unions represent GE workers. Although the unions, including the two unions
with national contracts -- the International Union of Electronic workers
(IUE) and the progressive UE -- now work relatively well together, the
balkanized representation system further weakens labor negotiators.
In preparation for this year's negotiations, the GE Coordinated Bargaining
Committee, which includes the 14 unions, has undertaken a corporate
campaign. They've highlighted egregious GE practices and generated public
support and sympathy. In one sign that they do have some power, efforts to
publicize GE's use of pension funds as an accounting profit center
(because the $50 billion pension pool is overfunded by $25 billion, GE is
able to claim investment gains on the pension funds as paper profits) have
resulted in GE agreeing to provide expanded pension benefits.
GE workers have also taken the first steps to deal with the globalization
of the company. In March, the International Metalworkers Federation held a
meeting in Washington, D.C. to bring together GE union representatives
from 20 countries. While they are certainly a long way from global
bargaining with the company -- with some progressive unionists cautioning
that global bargaining may not even be desirable -- they did agree to
meaningful information exchanges and solidarity activities.
Meanwhile, the tiny UE has done more impressive and far-reaching
solidarity work than any other U.S. union, maintaining a long-time
partnership with the FAT labor federation in Mexico, the organization of
authentic Mexican unions.
But addressing the problem of runaway GE will require more than
international union solidarity, as crucial as it is. A far stronger and
aggressive labor movement might be able to stop plant closings and job
exports through direct action and collective bargaining, or it might be
able to win national legislation or even international trade rules to
block GE and other companies from employing a "factory barge" strategy.
For now, however, GE appears relatively free to trumpet its American
heritage while betraying the U.S. workers who built the company ... and
turning its back on its new workers outside of the United States if still
greater profits are to be found elsewhere.
Russell Mokhiber is editor of the Washington, D.C.-based Corporate Crime
Reporter. Robert Weissman is editor of the Washington, D.C.-based
Multinational Monitor. Mokhiber and Weissman are co-authors of Corporate
Predators: The Hunt for MegaProfits and the Attack on Democracy (Monroe,
Maine: Common Courage Press, 1999, http://www.corporatepredators.org)
(c) Russell Mokhiber and Robert Weissman