AFL-CIO Seeks Partnership With GE's 'Neutron Jack'

Could "Neutron Jack" Welch be labor's partner? John Sweeney sees the CEO of General Electric, famed for cutting jobs and amassing profits, that way. Labor Notes has learned that Sweeney is quietly discussing with Welch the founding of a national "Economic Leadership Dialogue on Citizenship" between corporate executives and union officials, with himself and Welch as co- chairs.

Organized by the AFL-CIO's Corporate Affairs Department, the meetings between corporate leaders and union leaders are to be "private conversations," said department director Nancy Mills.

It is "unfortunate," Mills added, that word has gotten out about the proposed dialogue, which is still in its beginning stages. "The fact that they're meeting would not necessarily be private," Mills told Labor Notes. "But who's participating and the subject matter would be private until they decided it made sense to communicate it."

A letter written by Sweeney explains his rationale for the meetings. "The failure of American business and labor leaders to engage each other directly in a search for common purpose threatens to leave our nation a future that neither of us will proudly claim as our legacy to the next generation," it says. "I think we must take steps to avert that outcome."

The objectives of the dialogue include, Sweeney says, "deepening of the participants' understanding of the unities and differences between labor and business on issues related to our nation's strategic interests" and "a process between leaders of labor and leaders of business which will eventually be perceived as a legitimate and high-minded one by other significant stakeholders in the society."

What the meetings are not for, Sweeney says, is for executives to strengthen their collective bargaining relationships with their respective union counterparts.

NOT SHARING

One of the union leaders on board is Ed Fire, president of the International Union of Electronic Workers, which bargains with GE. Fire told Labor Notes that discussions with Welch had begun well over a year ago, but were put on hold because of contract talks in 1997. "Where we're at now, it's a question of arranging the schedules, making sure the bases are covered, who will serve on the committee," Fire said.

Welch was chosen as co-chair, said Fire, because "he epitomizes-- he's Mr. CEO, let's not kid ourselves. He and John [Sweeney], going back to the time when John was head of SEIU in New York, they worked together on some projects, there's mutual respect there.

"Let's face it: GE made $8.2 billion a year profit," Fire added. "He's got to be doing something right. My complaint is he's not sharing it with us."

New Book

Secrets of a successful organizer

A step-by-step guide to building power on the job. Buy Now. »

Welch is indeed lionized by his fellow execs for running the most profitable company in America. He is the subject of admiring profiles in business magazines, and is greeted with standing ovations at corporate get-togethers. Not all labor leaders are among his admirers, however.

"Someone should be the poster child of corporate greed in America--and there's no better candidate than Welch," said Jeff Crosby, president of an IUE local representing GE workers in Lynn, Massachusetts. "At GE they have a long-term, 45-year strategy of getting rid of the unions. Some committee's not going to change that."

CORPORATE CITIZENSHIP

Steve Tormey of the United Electrical Workers, the second- largest union at GE after the IUE, tells of a gathering of GE managers last year. Welch told the group to be prepared to keep operating if the unions called a strike and vowed that GE would never agree to neutrality in union organizing drives. "We don't need some third party to give people voice," he said. The company has shown the videotape of Welch's remarks at various union plants.

According to Business Week, the union share of GE's U.S. employment has shrunk from 39 percent to 25 percent just since 1991. In 1998 alone, says Tormey, the company has made five major plant closings or transfers of work to non-union or Mexican plants.

As far as GE's "citizenship" is concerned: since 1985 the company has pleaded guilty or been convicted of defrauding the government three times, cheating taxpayers out of tens of millions of dollars in schemes that included bribes and overcharges. And, says Tormey, "GE is always the leader in terms of Superfund [toxic chemical] sites."

In July, EPA Administrator Carol Browner condemned GE for dumping a million tons of PCBs into the Hudson River, making it the largest Superfund cleanup site in the country. The company is trying to avoid paying hundreds of millions of dollars to clean up the area.

Days later, Welch basked in the media limelight as he and Hillary Clinton announced a $5 million GE contribution to restore Thomas Edison's "invention factory" in New Jersey.

Earlier this year, Richard Bensinger, then head of the AFL-CIO Organizing Department but since fired, announced plans for an ambitious, cross-union organizing drive at GE. "Bensinger was talking about $25 million, 50 organizers in Mexico," said Crosby. Those plans seem to have been shelved.