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GE employees search for new options

Jessica Anderson | IDS | Date: 12/8/2008

GE Story

The General Electric plant in Bloomington will close for good in 2010. But since September, GE has cut back production in south central Indiana.

In that time, employees have had more days off, working three weeks in the last two months, said Carven Thomas, president and business manager of International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers 2249.

For many, it has been hard to cope with the lost hours and decreased pay, and the workers wonder what life will be like when the plant closes completely.

In January, GE announced plans to stop the production of side-by-side refrigerators – produced in Bloomington – after several rounds of layoffs. The jobs will move to Mabe, Mexico.

“I’ve been on a roller coaster of emotion probably until the last couple of months,” said Lana Norman, executive board chairperson for IBEW 2249 and an assembler at the GE plant. “I was relieved, and then it was like, ‘Oh, hell, what am I going to do?’”

“I still don’t think it’s hit a lot of people yet,” said Carla Gilliland, assembler and executive board member for IBEW 2249.

While employees are still receiving 70 percent of their pay, Thomas said the 700-some GE employees will continue to have tough decisions to make during the upcoming year.

The majority of the employees still working for the plant have 20 to 30 years of seniority.

They must decide whether to take other GE jobs in other states, such as New Jersey, Pennsylvania, South Carolina and New Mexico, or try to find work in Monroe County.

“I have a child in fourth grade,” Gilliland said. “If I uproot him, he’s got to do it all over again – make new friends. And then I have a daughter here in college and a grandma I take care of here. I can’t just uproot a 93-year-old woman and take her states away when she’s lived here all her life.

“Put it this way, we’ve had these jobs for 22 years; we’ve worked for these jobs, and what’s going to happen? We’re going to lose all of our friends we’ve had for 22 years. We’re going to lose our secure jobs and all we have left now will be family. We cannot lose our family, too, and go somewhere else.”

Gilliland is currently taking classes at Ivy Tech-Bloomington, working toward a nursing degree. She received money from GE after completing courses through the tuition reimbursement program.

But not all employees took advantage of the program, and many are finding that the economic downturn is hurting more than just the manufacturing jobs in Monroe County.

“Everybody says ‘let’s go back to school; let’s get retrained; let’s get reeducated,’ but the simple fact is it doesn’t matter how much training or education we have, there’s really nothing out there,” Thomas said. “Folks with MBAs and all kinds of degrees are getting laid off, and we’ll be competing with them in a market.”

Gilliland said the transition to going to school might be more difficult for some employees, adding some don’t even know how to turn on a computer.

“I’ve done this for 22 years, so I’m taking adult education classes to get me ready,” Norman said. “I know one thing: I’m never going in another factory. I can’t. There’s no way I can physically take starting all over again. I’ll do whatever I can to avoid it.”

Thomas said the lack of work could take a mental toll on employees.

“Christmas time this year, with a lack of work, concerns me, but Christmas time next year really worries me,” Thomas said. “It seems to me that that time of year, people really get down on themselves.”

Thomas said after the last round of layoffs in 2003, two union members committed suicide.

“Our job is getting them as many options as possible, getting them as much information as possible, getting in all of the professional help as possible,” he said.
Despite the difficulties associated with relocating and starting over, Thomas credits GE for trying to remain in Monroe County.

“I think GE has treated me well. GE for the most part tried to ride the appliance game out in America longer than any other company,” Thomas said, saying that Whirlpool has been in Mexico for 20 years. “I really think GE tried to make it work here.”

Despite all of the obstacles – including coping with the lack of work, losing friends and low morale – Thomas dreads the first day after the plant is closed.

“You get the natural reaction to get up and go to the plant and then realize ‘oh man,’” he said. “That’ll be weird.”