GE squeezes workers to build battery plant in Schenectady

One thing you’ve got to admit — private industry has local communities over a barrel when it comes t

One thing you’ve got to admit — private industry has local communities over a barrel when it comes to building new plants. Their idea is, if you don’t subsidize us we won’t build in your lousy town. We’ll go somewhere else that will subsidize us. (Witness the computer-chip factory in Saratoga County, underwritten to the tune of $1.3 billion in taxpayer money.)

Now it appears that private industry, or at least the General Electric Co. portion of private industry, has its work force over a barrel too. The idea in that case is, if you don’t agree to pay cuts or pay freezes or unpaid furloughs, we’ll go somewhere cheaper, which I take to be the plain-English translation of “consider all our options.” We’ll build in Kentucky, or maybe in India.

That’s what’s going on in Schenectady. GE is holding out the promise of a new $100 million factory to manufacture batteries at the existing main plant down at the end of Erie Boulevard, employing some 350 people, the only possible reaction to which is “Hallelujah!” after the decline Schenectady has suffered in recent decades.

But then comes the catch. The company wants to be able to pay its workers less, which of course diminishes the value of the plant to the community as a whole, and it wants some kind of break on its property taxes, though we don’t yet know how much that will be, and of course that too diminishes its value to the community.

At what point is it worth it?

As far as workers are concerned, GE wants to pay new hires $10 an hour less, across the board.

At the high end of the pay scale, it wants to give workers aged 60 and over an incentive to retire and get off the payroll.

And for everybody it wants to freeze pay for the next two years, despite a contract guarantee of a cost-of-living increase each year, which this year was 3 percent, as well as impose periods of unpaid leave as it sees fit, not to mention shut down the entire plant for 10 weeks next year.

Do you take the deal or don’t you?

“No,” one 21-year blue-collar employee told me no. “It won’t benefi t me at all.”

She said it would benefit older workers by letting them retire early and younger workers by protecting them against layoffs for the next two years, but with her seniority she wouldn’t get laid off anyway. And she and her colleagues resent being held responsible for the future of Schenectady. “We don’t like the gun to our head,” she said.

The dynamic of unions is that the leadership usually looks to succor itself first, which means the older workers, since leaders tend to be older, and let the devil take new hires, those who aren’t even members yet. So GE is undoubtedly smart in proposing the most drastic sacrifices for new hires, who have no voice and no vote, being merely hypothetical.

Whether it’s smart to ask sacrifices of mid-level workers also, I don’t know.

Members of Local 301 will meet this evening in the GE annex to Proctors Theatre to chew these questions over, and we’ll see where they come out, whether they swallow their pride and accept the deal or whether they call the company’s bluff and risk taking the blame for the big battery plant being built somewhere else.

Either way, it’s pretty clear who’s in control of this game.

Categories: Opinion

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