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UE-GE National Contract Negotiations

GE and PCB's:
Reflections and Lessons

When it comes to protecting the environment, General Electric likes to portray itself as a good corporate citizen. In fact, GE has long been one of the nations worst polluters, leads the nation in the number of toxic cleanup or "Superfund" sites under its past or present control, and routinely puts up fierce resistance when any government agency calls them to account for, and more importantly to pay for, repairing the damage they have created.


No example better illustrates this than the long saga of GEs so far successful effort to avoid paying for a comprehensive clean up, including dredging, of New Yorks Hudson River. Between 1940 and 1977 GE discharged over one million pounds of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) into the Hudson. These emanated from GEs two adjacent plants in Hudson Falls and Ft. Edward, which for many years have been represented by UE Local 332 (The company has since closed the Hudson Falls plant.) PCBs were routinely used as insulators in the capacitors manufactured at the two plants.

Ever since the discovery of the dangers of PCBs in the 1970s (the EPA calls them probable carcinogens), GEs overriding goal has been to limit its liability in the matter. Indeed then GE CEO Reg Jones assigned one of his rising stars to negotiate with New York state officials over the matter, a man by the name of Jack Welch. At one point, Jones threatened to pull every GE plant out of New York state if GE was treated too roughly in the matter.


Ever since, GEs strategy has been one of delay and repeated insistence that various EPA studies which documented the danger of PCBs to humans and the environment are "invalid". GE also claims that the PCBs will degrade on their own, making dredging unnecessary.

In March of last year, the Company trumpeted the release of a study by the Institute of Evaluating Health Risks (IEHR) which concluded that workers exposed to PCBs suffered no greater incidence of cancer than the general population. What GE did not immediately reveal was that they commissioned and paid for the study!

In August, the EPA released the results of a study which concluded that individuals who regularly eat fish caught from a 40 mile stretch of the river from Hudson Falls to Troy run an unacceptable risk of getting cancer or suffering neurological damage. Other ill effects include low birth weight in newborns.

The EPA is scheduled to make a preliminary determination some time this year as to whether "hot spots" in the river need to be dredged, with a final decision expected in 2001. If dredging is ordered, it is expected to cost GE in excess of $1 billion.


The latest development occurred last November when New York State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer filed suit against GE for monetary damages incurred by the state in maintaining a shipping canal which runs adjacent to and in some places into the Hudson, and which itself is PCB contaminated. He invited communities along that stretch of the river which have suffered damages such as declining property values and job losses attributable to the contamination to join the suit.

And GEs reaction? Its strictly blame the messenger. GEs statement on the suit concludes as follows: "This lawsuit has been brought by a man who is fixated on garnering media attention and promoting his personal political ambitions." And GE has retained the firm of the long-time Congressman from the area (now retired) Gerald Solomon, to lobby the EPA against dredging.

With this as background, its a good time to review a little of what UE Local 332 members went through when the dangers of PCBs were discovered. What follows are the reflections of retired UE International Representative Ed Bloch, who worked with the members of Local 332 during this critical time.

by Retired UE International Representative Ed Bloch

UE Local 332 members are reading front-page headlines about New York State suing to compel GE to pay for the PCBs they put in the Hudson River with very special appreciation. Have they ever been through it !!

The memories flood back on the major role they played in fighting the worldwide pollution catastrophe that finds seals in the Arctic Ocean with a very high PCB content. That same catastrophe, of course, drastically affected the health of many of the workers in those departments of the GE capacitor mill that used PCBs in open vats, with spills all over the floor.


It was almost 25 years ago before GE started moving two-thirds of the jobs to the Maquiladora zone in Mexico that the small towns of Hudson Falls and Fort Edward, learned about the inevitable relationship between environmental and worker health-and-safety problems. Here are a few of the more dramatic memories:

  • When NYSs Environmental Commissioner Ogden Reid outlawed further use of PCBs as insulators citing international treaties the U.S. had signed GE announced it would have to close down the plant (it was only learned later that GE had already synthesized its own non-toxic insulator instead of relying on Monsantos PCB product.)

  • In the chaotic union meetings following GEs threat to close the 1,250-worker plant (the largest employer in Washington County), the Receiving Department worker who jumped to his feet and announced that one of his prescribed duties was to tear the skull-and-cross bones labels off the Monsanto barrels.

  • The chaotic fear that swept the plant, with the "Lone Campaigner" given free run of the plant to collect signatures on a petition to demand union agreement with GE to fight the Commissioners order ("just his political ambition anyway").

  • When GE took busloads of workers to Albany to "save their jobs," Business Agent Bernie Leonkas sage strategic advice, "We know this is a phony. But when youve got a stampede on your hands, you dont hold up your hand and say stop. You say follow me!! and make a U-turn down the road."

  • When the U-turn was made with splendid help from the UE National, environmentalist and folksinger Pete Seeger and others, the work of Dave Kotelchuck in setting up a famous team of doctors to test what was happening to the workers in the PCB departments where the toxic was freely inhaled.

  • The 27-member team of doctors and technicians from Mt. Sinai hospital who set up a MASH-type testing center in a garage across the street from GE to test 343 affected workers. The seething metropolis of Fort Edward had never seen anything like this before. The medics included Dr. Irving Selikoff, the world-renowned specialist who had been fighting for 41 years to get asbestosis recognized as the major lung killer that it is. Plenty of serious disabilities were initially diagnosed, especially respiratory and reproductive abnormalities.

  • When testing day finally arrived, GE refused to allow workers to leave the plant and threatened Business Agent Leonka with discharge. By this time the tide had definitively turned, GE announced its own testing program but the designated workers followed Bernie and local president Dot Danahy anyway. It was a huge victory !

  • New York State then called a formal hearing at which UE Local 332 testified with great help once again from the UE national Office. The Hearing Officer was Abraham Sofaer, later to be a national Assistant Attorney General.

  • The subsequent mortality study which found high degrees of cancer, auto-immune and reproductive problems among workers in the PCB areas but couldnt seem to focus on the PCBs as responsible instead of other personal habits like smoking.

In the quarter of a century since then, politicians beholden to GE and its billions have succeeded in preventing a definitive judgement on GE that would make GE responsible for removing the PCBs theyd put there. They didnt, that is, until NYS Attorney General Spitzer finally made the move. Well see what happens now.


But all the adverse publicity, all the citizen litigation and above all the constant pressure of UE Local 332 and its leadership finally accomplished part of their objective. GE changed the insulating oil in its capacitors and the mill itself. And that was no small potatoes.

At least some of the safety and health problems were remedied at the GE Fort Edward plant for the workers whose jobs have not been sent elsewhere. And it gave UE Local 332 members a tremendous political lesson on how to hang in there against this giant corporation and effectively fight the good fight.

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