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UE-GE National Contract Negotiations

Cooperation with GE?

Stop, Look, Listen, Learn ...
... and Organize!

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 company’s benefit.

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 circumstances.

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 undermined.

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 programs.

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 to win!

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