On Wednesday, workers at General Electric expanded their protests, demanding that their factories be repurposed to create ventilators to fight coronavirus instead of airplane parts.
Building on last week's protests at the company’s Lynn, Massachusetts aviation facility and Boston headquarters, Wednesday’s protests happened outside of four factories in Schenectady, NY, Dallas, TX, Salem, VA, and again at the Lynn facility.
Organized by the Industrial Division of the Communications Workers of America (IUE-CWA), the protests share the same demands and tactics as the previous ones. Faced with serious layoffs and factory closures, IUE-CWA members are demanding the company instead convert its workforce and unused manufacturing capacity to "accelerate the production of life-saving ventilators" for coronavirus patients.
The workers are also asking for better protections at factories that are still running.
GE is laying off 10 percent of its domestic aviation workforce, some 2,600 workers, and temporarily laying off 50 percent of its maintenance workers to save "$500 million to $1 billion." GE says it plans to reject funds from the recently passed coronavirus bailout package that might help prevent such layoffs, including $50 billion in federal assistance and $24 billion in loans and temporary tax relief for the aviation industry, on top of another $17 billion for companies "crucial to national security."
“For those that are laid off, I think this is an opportunity to build these ventilators instead of having our workers at home,” Carl Kennebrew, president of IUE-CWA, which represents the GE Aviation workers, told Motherboard. “We have the knowledge and the skills to get the work done. I think we could meet whatever demands we're asked about, we just have not been provided the opportunity."
GE has entered multiple partnerships with Ford that use the automaker’s plants or workers to produce ventilators designed and initially created by GE’s Healthcare Division.
Additionally, the union is calling for enhanced safety measures at GE facilities as the pandemic worsens. Among the union's demands are: installing proper equipment for taking temperatures of every person entering a GE facility, discussions with health and safety experts to design safety protocols during the pandemic, hazard pay, personal protective equipment, allowing at-risk employees (those with pre-existing conditions, live with an immuno-comprised individual, live with a symptomatic individual, etc.) to self-isolate and collect paid leave, disability benefits, or unemployment benefits through the CARES Act.
Walkter Bradford, president of Local 86788 in Dallas, TX, said GE wasn't taking seriously the threat Covid-19 posed to workers and their families.
“We don't have hand sanitizer to clean our hands or Lysol wipes to clean surfaces. We're cleaning things with Clorox solution, where you take the powder and mix it up, but I don't think that's the proper way of cleaning,” Bradford added. “I don't think they understand covid-19 at all."
GE facilities, including the Lynn, MA facility where one protest is taking place, already have confirmed coronavirus cases, but there's concern outbreaks could happen on factory floors where space is cramped.
“They have not done everything—preventative measures wise—that they could. It's different what they're doing at each facility and that's part of the argument is that there's no consistency across the board as far as the safety precautions,” said Kennebrew. “It's pretty evident in every facility that workers are not able to practice the six-foot distancing. As you know, factory work keeps most workers very close-knit together and so they have not been able to practice the six-foot distance in some cases. In other cases, workers are having to share tools and equipment, it just varies from location to location."
When asked if he thought GE would respond positively to the workers’ demands, Kennebrew was confident:
"Workers are leading in this moment, as they always have. Whether it's been a war, a pandemic, a crisis, whatever it's been, American workers have always been part of the solution to the crisis at hand and they want to do that again,” he said. “Our members across our union are out there on the frontlines going to work in factories, hospitals, optical, social work, maintenance, military aircraft, they're on the front line. They continue to work to keep our country running, as they always have, and they deserve to be safe while they do that work.”
GE did not respond to a request for comment for this article, but after last week’s protests, it told Motherboard it is “working around the clock to increase the production of much-needed medical equipment. GE Healthcare has already doubled ventilator production capacity, with a plan to double it again by June, in addition to partnering with Ford Motor Company to further increase ventilator production." Update: In a statement to Motherboard, a GE spokesperson said:
“GE’s number one priority is the health and safety of our employees, and in line with the CDC, we have taken a number of preventive and protective measures to help protect our employees. We have implemented additional, COVID-related paid leave policies and continue to work with individual employees who may have unique risk factors or situations.
“Our Lynn facility is considered essential by Homeland Security because our work provides mission-critical equipment to the U.S. military, as our other sites are similarly focused on providing power and much-needed medical equipment. GE’s healthcare business has already doubled ventilator production and continues to explore additional opportunities to support the fight against COVID-19, prioritizing fast, efficient options to meet this immediate need.”