Organizing: Union Takes the Long, Bottom-Up Route at GE

General Electric has an entire department dedicated to keeping unions out of its plants. The efforts of the “Union Avoidance” department have been successful. The last union win at a GE plant was in Murfreesboro, Tennessee in the mid-1980’s. By going back to an old union organizing strategy, the IUE-CWA is attempting to crack the GE fortress.

Typically, unions, including the International Union of Electronic Workers (IUE), which represents 16,000 GE workers, have tried organizing GE plants one at a time, bringing in staff organizers for a protracted campaign.

When such drives stalled with less than majority support, union resources, including the organizers, were shifted elsewhere. This often left the union supporters bitter and confused and unintentionally affirmed the company’s portrayal of the union as an outside third party.

The IUE merged with the Communications Workers (CWA) in 2000, and with the merger came an infusion of different organizing strategies. CWA had two nontraditional organizing efforts going, “WASHTECH” and “The Alliance@IBM”-both member organizations rather than traditional unions. Their goal is to improve conditions for workers by changing management’s behavior without being covered by a collective bargaining agreement.

THE ORIGINAL STRATEGY

Although this is often referred to as a “new” organizing strategy it is, in reality, the original strategy. Before there were any labor laws, the only source of power and protection for workers was in finding creative ways to use collective shop floor action as leverage against management.

IUE-CWA adapted the membership organization strategy to the cause of organizing union-resistant GE. WAGE (Working At GE) Committees began building a union at two non-union GE facilities: Johnson Technologies in Muskegon, Michigan and the Aircraft Engine and Global Nuclear Fuel facility in Wilmington, North Carolina.

At both locations, the WAGE Committees were built on the foundation of a failed traditional organizing drive. At Johnson Technologies, WAGE activities began almost immediately after IUE-CWA narrowly lost a recognition election. In Wilmington, core activists from a campaign that folded in 1997 became the nucleus for a WAGE Committee formed in April 2002.

WAGE Committees are intended to be largely self-directed, with workers relying on their own experience to find ways to change their employer’s behavior. The union’s role is to facilitate the committee’s activities and provide training and resources, rather than to design and direct the committee’s work.

This is a big step for former local organizing committee members accustomed to working under the direction of a full-time union organizer assigned to their location. Initially, workers are both confused and skeptical (and rightfully so) of the need for a different approach. A lot of time must be spent convincing them, especially since this approach will require more of their own energy and involvement.

When asked how long IUE-CWA will pursue the WASHTECH, Alliance, and WAGE strategies, IUE-CWA Vice President Larry Cohen replies, “As long as it takes.” This response was related to Wilmington workers as a sign that IUE-CWA will not withdraw its support if the campaign does not quickly result in a recognition election.

Unfortunately, workers first interpreted this statement to mean that IUE-CWA was not interested in an election and that they would have to settle for a second-class form of organizing. The intention was exactly the opposite: the goal with WAGE is not just to hold an election, but to win the election.

Realistically, there is little likelihood of quickly winning an election at GE, especially not in Wilmington, which is enduring layoffs caused by a slow economy and is located in an area hostile to unions (North Carolina is, of course, a “right to work” state).

HYBRID

A WAGE Committee functions as a hybrid between an organizing committee and a union local (provided the local stresses membership action instead of top-down bureaucracy). The Committee’s activities are intended to build union support by showing that it is possible to improve working conditions through rank and file collective action.

New Book

Secrets of a successful organizer

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

While the committee works to make things better, workers get to experience first-hand what a union is in its best form, stating the case for a union in reality rather than in the abstract.

Workers have the option of joining WAGE as either a member or a supporter. Members pay $10 per month dues, become IUE-CWA members with voting privileges, and are eligible for a package of benefits. The dues income is returned to the Committee and used to finance its operation. Both members and supporters participate in the Committee’s activities.

In Wilmington, for example, the April WAGE Committee meeting focused on GE’s punitive approach to health and safety issues. Workers were invariably found to be the cause of injury accidents and were given a “coaching session” (a form of discipline) for reporting one. Members also discussed difficulty obtaining Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS) required by law and problems with procedures for handling hazardous materials.

By the next WAGE meeting, management had made MSDS information available on PCs on the shop floor. Supervisors also told employees during weekly meetings that they should report all accidents without fear of retribution.

It isn’t surprising that GE reacted so quickly to deal with these issues. Workers knew that North Carolina OSHA was due in the plant to conduct an annual audit in June. A point of leverage was found and some of the workers’ concerns were addressed-just by discussing a problem.

NON-UNION CONTRACT INPUT

IUE-CWA and the local WAGE Committees intend to further project the power of rank and file employees at non-union GE locations when the next master contract is negotiated, in 2003, between GE and the 13 unions that form the Coordinated Bargaining Council.

As part of its union avoidance strategy, GE has voluntarily passed on gains made at the bargaining table to non-union employees. Workers in Wilmington are told, for example, that seniority will govern during layoffs and that wage progressions will follow those in the master contract. The message is that workers would be foolish to “buy the cow” (pay union dues) when they “get the milk” (better wages and benefits) for free.

Since workers at non-union GE plants have the same interest in improving the master contract as union-represented workers do, IUE-CWA intends to actively solicit and use information gathered by WAGE Committees to formulate bargaining demands. The union will also bring WAGE members to the bargaining table.

There are many obstacles to be overcome. Many workers at GE in North Carolina, like workers everywhere else in the U.S., are both apathetic and intimidated and believe much of what they hear about unions. It will take time for them to get beyond their fear and apathy and to forgive past transgressions.

The WAGE approach, which means building union support over time and workers learning, from the start, to act from the bottom up, should be perfect for this challenge.

Paul Bouchard is the Organizing Director of the IUE-CWA Local 201.

For Spanish version of this article, click here.