In 2005 General Electric launched their "EcoMagination" campaign,
a marketing effort built around selling products that help solve
environmental problems and create green jobs.
According to GE's CEO Jeffery Immelt
"Our Ecomagination initiative has created tens of thousands of jobs at
GE and in our supply chain." And if the U.S. steps up and takes the
lead on climate mitigation, Immelt promises to "create 250,000 green
jobs in the economy."
So what are GE's new green jobs of the future going to look like?
According to one group of GE "green" workers who have filed a racial
discrimination lawsuit in Alabama (complaint below), GE's vision for a
green future looks more like a nightmare.
The case was brought by sixty-two employees of Lacy Enterprises, a
company that leases workers to a subsidiary of GE to clean out
baghouses at coal-fired power plants and manufacturing facilities.
Mandated by the EPA under the Clean Air Act, baghouses are designed to
reduce emissions of hazardous air pollutants with cloth or synthetic
filters or "bags" that capture toxic particulates such as lime, coal
black, lead, arsenic and mercury. On the front lines of emerging green
economy, GE's work team traveled around the country cleaning and
replacing the filters at coal and cement plants, steel mills and
According to deposition transcripts and interviews from the case the
African American work crews were treated with abuse that represents an
affront to human rights and dignity. On a regular basis they were
called "boys", "monkeys", "lazy niggers" by their GE supervisor,
according to transcripts. They were forced to work up to 12 hours a
day, often with only one half-hour break for lunch, and denied bathroom
and rest breaks. Workers were even refused requests for water or a
chance "to just get some air because the temperature in the bag house
was very high -- often over 100 degrees."
Work crews were denied adequate protection from the dangerous
chemicals they handled on a daily basis -- including lime, coal black,
lead, and arsenic. Their supervisor "resisted giving the crew new face
masks because he did not want them to take the time to change them." On
one job in Columbia, Georgia the particulates workers' handled "burnt
their skin because the Tyvek suits they had on were insufficient to
protect their skin from the toxins in the baghouse."
If the crew tried to take breaks when the heat or soot became
unbearable they were called "lazy niggers" and told they'd be fired if
they didn't get back to work, according to plaintiff testimony. One
worker was fired from a job in Texas for merely trying to wash off coal
debris that covered him head to toe.
According to the workers, if they got sick on the job they were
denied medical treatment. Exposed to extreme cold on a job in Missouri,
one worker's skin grafts began to ooze and peel off. When he asked for
medical help he was called a "sorry ass chicken shit mother fucker" by
his GE supervisor and ordered to get back to work. According to another
crew member, while working at high altitude in the winter, he suffered
a seizure due to hypothermia and almost fell to his death because his
supervisor had denied him a break to warm up. When he was taken down by
his crew mates, the supervisor refused to call for medical help. When a
plant worked called an ambulance, the GE supervisor said "I don't care
what happens to that nigger."
According to the plaintiff's lawyer Daniela Nanau, a senior attorney at the Law Offices of Joshua Friedman in New York:
The racial abuse went way beyond slurs. One of the victims suffered
a nervous breakdown, was hospitalized as a result, and has not been
able to work since. None of our clients, who worked their whole lives
in Monroeville, AL, had ever experienced anything like this before. The
most powerful industrial organization on the planet took advantage of
their poverty, lack of education and opportunity. When they complained,
they were sent home by their GE supervisor. Written complaints to his
manager were literally forgotten.
Despite these and other damning claims, GE's fighting hard to block
their "green" baghouse workers from having their day in court. This is
evidence enough to expose GE's "Ecoimagination" as a mere marketing
gimmick to lure us into forgetting that this the same company
responsible for creating at least 78 Superfund sites and whose former
CEO famously claimed that "PCBs do not pose adverse health risks."
The best thing that could happen to American workers would be the
creation of massive employment converting America to a low-carbon
economy. There is the potential to create millions of jobs, and they
can be designed to be good jobs with security, decent pay, and good
working conditions. But the support for the whole green jobs effort
will be undermined if corporations are allowed to make it into
"EcoMagination" writ large.
The abuses suffered by GE's "green" workers confirm our worst fears
that there's little guarantee so far that green jobs are going to be
good jobs. What are now touted as green jobs can all too easily instead
be minimum wage jobs with poor working conditions without job security
Those of us in the labor, environmental and civil rights movements
need to come together to demand that, at minimum, green jobs programs
have specific requirements for labor rights and standards with
monitoring and enforcement mechanisms. We need to demand that
hard-fought civil rights are respected. We need to demand corporations
that are repeated violators of labor rights and standards should be
banned from receiving green jobs funding. [For more on turning green
jobs into good jobs, click here]
Otherwise, if we leave it up to the GE's of the world, the new
green economy is going to be little more that a green-collar sweatshop.
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