General Electric factory workers are asking President Trump to require their company to use them to make emergency ventilators to fight the coronavirus pandemic, according to a copy of the letter obtained by Motherboard. The letter follows two separate nationwide protests by the workers.
In the letter, Carl Kennebrew, president of the IUE-CWA union behind General Electric worker protests demanding ventilator production, asked that the Defense Production Act be used to force GE into expanding ventilator production at underutilized facilities. GE’s Healthcare Division has partnered with Ford to make 50,000 ventilators in coming months, but for weeks workers have been saying this is not enough.
“At this rate, GE’s current capacity will be approximately 15,000 ventilators a month by mid-July. While this is a welcomed first step in combating the Covid-19 pandemic, these actions alone are not enough,” the letter reads. “We urge you to instruct GE to further increase its production of ventilators by setting-up production in underutilized facilities within its aviation, electrical systems, power grid, and lighting divisions.”
GE told Motherboard that it plans to produce the ventilators on a faster timescale than that.
Over the last month GE has announced widespread layoffs, including 10 percent of its domestic aviation workforce, 50 percent of its maintenance workers temporarily, and plant closures. In response, protests, demonstrations, and actions have been staged at facilities where workers say layoffs have left or are planned to leave significant manufacturing capacity idle. At the end of March, one factory in Lynn, MA held a silent protest while a march was held at the company's Boston headquarters. A week later, workers expanded their protests to four factories and raised concerns about poor safety protocols in place during the coronavirus pandemic. Today's letter calls for ventilator production at eight factories that have either been closed, face closure, or have suffered significant layoffs.
According to the letter, in Dallas, Texas, a GE Power Center faces imminent closure even as employees demand "GE use this facility and its highly-skilled workers to manufacture ventilators." In Salem, VA, GE closed its industrial controls plant two years ago and moved production to India. More than 200 workers were fired, leaving behind what workers say is an empty facility stretching some one million-plus square feet. Kennebrew writes that “these workers should be put back to work manufacturing ventilators to help fight the pandemic. Their expertise manufacturing circuit boards and custom control systems for gas, wind, and solar energy turbines could easily be put to use right now manufacturing ventilators.”
In Schenectady, NY, a GE Global Research Center involved in creating power grid generators has shrunk from a workforce numbering 20,000 to around 4,000 in what GE calls its "Capital Area." At GE Aviation facilities at Lynn, MA, Arkansas City, KS, and Madisonville, KY, along with GE Lighting facilities in Cleveland, OH, and Bucyrus, OH, thousands of workers have been laid off while tens of thousands of cumulative square feet sit idle. Each of these facilities shares the same story: Kennebrew describes "cavernous, empty manufacturing spaces" once filled by hundreds or thousands more workers, workers essentially begging to help ramp up ventilator production in anticipation of a shortage as the pandemic worsens, and a company seemingly unwilling to allocate resources within its own production facilities to convert wasted space to ventilator production.
In previous statements to Motherboard and the IUE-CWA union, GE's response to the workers' demands to help make ventilators has been to insist ventilator production is already up and assure workers that the company is always "exploring additional opportunities to support the fight against COVID-19, prioritizing fast, efficient options to meet this immediate need.” GE said that it is exploring all options for expanding its ventilator production.
"IUE-CWA members have the skills to make ventilators, GE has the capacity in these facilities, and production managers at GE Healthcare have the experience and knowledge to make this happen now," Kennebrew writes. "Your constituents want to work. Tell GE to put them to work saving American lives!"
Update: This article has been updated with context from GE.