Stop, Look, Listen,
WorkOut, Direct Flow Technology,
Just-in-Time, Self-Directed Work Teams, Cellular
Manufacturing, High Involvement, Quality Circles, Six
Sigma, and on and on.
In recent years GE workers have been
subjected to a dizzying array of company programs. Many of
them involve reorganization of our workplaces and
production processes. All of them attempt in one way or
another to pick our brains and use our knowledge for the
GE advances the usual reasons why they
spend so much time and money promoting these programs – the need to be "competitive"; for better
quality; to serve customers; to meet the
"global" challenge, etc. And if we don’t go
along, there is always the threat to do it GE’s way
"or else". As the former head of GE Medical
Systems, John Trani once said, "The Welch theory is
those who do, get, and those who don’t, go."
GE tells us relentlessly that cooperating
with them is the only route to job security and worker
"empowerment." But is this the vision we should
sign on to for our own and our children’s future? Should
we be happy that in the last decade GE’s sales have
tripled and net profits nearly tripled, while GE got rid
of nearly 100,000 U.S. employees? Should we meekly accept
the hemorrhaging of GE jobs to Mexico and Asia and all
over the world in the name of "competitiveness"?
Trying to cope with never ending GE programs on the one
hand, and a genuine feeling of insecurity on the other is
not easy. What are we to make of it all? We should keep a
few fundamental facts in mind.
Some Basics About GE Programs
All of these numerous GE programs are
designed for one and only one reason — to make more
money for GE.
Accordingly, the agenda of these
programs is set by GE. Rest assured there will be no Six
Sigma projects about ending work transfers and
subcontracting; addressing the issues of understaffing and
the increasing quantity of work piled on us; or
anything else that would really "empower" us.
GE schemes have resulted in less,
not more job security. And the jobs that remain are in
general, harder, faster, more regimented, and less secure.
"Competitiveness" as practiced
by GE is a race without a finish line. Year after year of
record profit and productivity increases that dwarf the
so-called competition, merely result in even greater
pressure to set a new record the next year. As Jack Welch
says, there’s "unlimited juice in the lemon."
GE programs all contain a strong
ideological component. The Company tells us that our
interests and theirs are mutual. But in reality, all of
the sources of union power are eventually attacked – seniority; working conditions; solidarity; and of course
our job knowledge and skills which GE seeks to capture. GE’s
interests and ours are not the same. There’s no
contradiction between GE’s ruthless opposition to
organizing a non-union plant, or going all out for NAFTA
on the one hand, and their call for
"cooperation" on the other. They are merely two
sides of the same coin.
Workplace Change —
For Better or Worse?
GE’s ruthless drive for new profit
records every year will doubtless continue. And when the
current rage, Six Sigma, runs its course, still more
programs will follow. How do we best defend ourselves and
advance our interests? There’s no single answer or easy
road map to follow. Every union will have to develop and
constantly refine a plan based on its particular
What we can’t afford is to do
nothing, or to accept GE’s idea that their
version of change is inevitable. What follows is not a
blueprint, but merely a few guidelines:
Six Sigma - Union Style
1. Develop a union program for our
workplace. Is quality really enhanced by eliminating all
indirect labor, maintenance and rework? Is the customer
better served by contractors? Must new technology mean
fewer jobs or skills taken out of the bargaining unit? The
union does have a better way.
2. Bargain any changes in work
practices or organization. The union is not just a
once-every-three-years thing. It is the bargaining agent
for "all conditions of employment."
3. Approach any GE program or project with
planning and discipline. Where we do participate, exercise
constant vigilance that our conditions will not be
4. Always maintain union solidarity.
We must not allow GE to "whipsaw" concessions
out of us by playing one plant off against another. The
same goes for programs such as "peer review,"
that pit worker against worker.
5. Avoid turning any knowledge over
to GE without the most careful consideration of the
possible consequences. Job "mapping,"
videotaping, and similar exercises are particularly
dangerous. So are unfettered statistical process control
6. Never forget what got us whatever good
things we enjoy — struggle! The great paradox of
"lean" production systems and
"just-in-time" inventory, is that the more work
and stress that GE piles on to us, the more the system
depends on our cooperation to function. GE workers will
never lose the ability to struggle and our union contract
gives us the tools we need to struggle when necessary and