The workers at General Electric Aviation’s facility in Lynn, Massachusetts make jet engines and helicopter parts, most notably the massive T408 engine that powers the U.S. Marine Corps “King Stallion” heavy-lift helicopter. They are good at what they do, but in the past few decades the company has steadily moved jobs overseas until the plant’s workforce is a fraction of what it once was in the early 90s. That workforce is still strong, and they’re currently fighting for both their own lives and the chance to maybe save yours.
The Lynn facility’s work on the King Stallion’s engine and other military parts makes them an essential business, and all employees are expected to show up for work. But as they do so, they’re falling sick, and so far their union says the company’s response has been sorely lacking.
On Monday, members of the IUE-CWA Local 201 held a silent protest, standing six feet apart at their work stations in the Lynn facility. A separate group of workers picketed outside the company’s global headquarters in Boston, protesting the lack of workplace protections and response to the deadly epidemic ripping through the Eastern seaboard.
GE workers currently face a double threat, with a pandemic sweeping through American industry and a corporate structure designed to prioritize profits over their jobs. Workers think there is an innovative solution to both problems: repurposing decommissioned facilities and saving jobs to build ventilators, while providing the workforce with the resources it needs to stay healthy and productive.
GE already has a division of the company that makes medical equipment. But workers at the Lynn facility and other GE Aviation branches say their equipment can be retooled to make ventilators, and thanks to the years of downsizing, they have plenty of space to do it.
Similar battles are taking place at GE facilities across the country, some of which have been hit by the sweeping layoffs the company announced last week (Lynn has been spared job cuts for the time being). The nationwide IUE-CWA identified at least seven different facilities that had both the capacity and capability to make ventilators, which gives the company the option to both put laid-off workers back on the job and manufacture a product in extremely high demand by the government and hospital systems across the country.
“We’re going to get out front of this… to say you’re not going to use this crisis to line your pockets again,” Adam Kaszynski, the president of the IUE-CWA Local 201 in Lynn told Rolling Stone. “Workers know what to do. We have empty buildings, we have communities you can put jobs and manufacturing back into, making a product that is heavily needed by society right now.”
GE did not respond to questions about the Lynn facility and converting aviation plants to manufacture ventilators. In a statement on Monday, the company said it was “working round the clock” to increase production on ventilators in GE healthcare facilities and touted its partnership with Ford Motor Company to produce 50,000 ventilators in 100 days. The American Hospital Association estimates that 960,000 people will need a ventilator over the course of the crisis, which could peak this month.
Kaszynski’s fear is that GE will use the crisis to shift production to non-union plants, rather than meet workers demands for a safe workplace and productive work to serve a national good. “This is disaster capitalism,” Kaszynski said. “They’re going to have to explain to everyone their vision of the world if they shift jobs out of this community.”
And for the workers that remain, the ongoing epidemic is a constant fear.
In the past few weeks, at least 5 workers at the Lynn facility have fallen sick. Whenever a confirmed case comes through in a building, the rest of that building’s workers file into the parking lot to meet with management, using their sick time to do so. The next shift often uses sick time to call out of work as well.
The union is now battling for a full two-week shutdown of the facility to make sure that sick workers can be isolated and any new cases are discovered before they spread. Thus far, the company has told them that’s unnecessary, instead promising to cancel overtime shifts over the weekend while they fog-disinfect the plant.
“We think that GE having 95 billion revenue in 2019 puts them in a position where they can do that [two week shutdown] for us,” Kaszynski said. “[Instead] they’re going to cover this whole thing up with a bunch of Ghostbusters spraying fog in there.”
The time for measures like that is already over, Kaszynski said. “They’ve dragged their feet for too long and we can’t deal with it any more. We’re prepared to help.”
The only question now is if the bosses are prepared to help too.