Workers Held Hostage

When I was laid-off from the Lynn GE plant in the late 1980’s, it wasn’t because of the cancellation of any military contract. In those days, Lynn produced steam turbines to power civilian as well as Navy ships, commercial electric generating plants and gears for railroad engines, along with military and non-military jet engines. But GE was determined to shrink the Lynn workforce and one-by-one the civilian production lines disappeared. It wasn’t that these businesses had become obsolete or unprofitable; it was just that GE decided that it was more lucrative to move the jobs elsewhere or license the work for overseas manufacture.

Before GE announced that it was closing the Steam Turbine Division in Lynn, we learned that the company was giving up the burgeoning Asian market by licensing its designs and manufacturing know-how to Toshiba and Matsushita in Japan and Hyundai in Korea. The union waged a public campaign to keep the work in Lynn, but we were unsuccessful in convincing GE to change its decision, or to move any other old or new production to the plant. Not long after that, my own job was gone.

Today, nearly all of that GE civilian work in Lynn is history and the plant is highly dependent on military production. But the workforce is only a small fraction of what it was up to the 1980’s. The highly skilled workers in Lynn could easily produce equipment for civilian transportation or the sustainable energy needs of the future, but GE refuses to consider projects to retool the plant or adopt other production lines.

Instead, the company lobbies for the highly profitable make-work of a so-called “alternative engine” to power the new wasteful and unnecessary F-35 fighter-bomber — for which no opponent is even vaguely on the horizon. Sadly, the unions ? and some local politicians — see no alternative but to lobby for this boondoggle in the hope of keeping a relatively small number of jobs in Lynn. To his credit, 9th Congressional District Representative Stephen Lynch, a life-long union member/supporter, voted no in Congress. Unfortunately, the taxpayers were already on the hook for more than $3billiion down the drain in this project.

Meanwhile, GE is more profitable than ever. But these days most of its earning come from the financial manipulations of GE Capital and its workforce is mainly expanding in cheap labor foreign countries like China or Mexico ? while it continues to close plants in the US. And to add further insult, the accounting wizards at GE ? with help from a very favorable corporate tax code ? have ensured that it often pays no US taxes. Last year the highly profitable company got a $3.2billion tax refund from the government. Yes, “GE Brings Good Things to Life” ? but mainly for its own bottom line. No wonder the company is spending a fortune on feel-good advertising to bolster its corporate image.

Jobs in Lynn may be far more at risk from GE’s corporate greed than from the loss of funding for a single military contract, but there are many other workers actually threatened by decisions about military spending. Annual “security spending” ? at an estimated $1,000,000,000,000 ? accounts for more than half of the Federal discretionary budget. The hundreds of billions of dollars we waste every year on wars of choice, pointlessly expensive weapons systems, and over one thousand foreign military bases are starving our states and communities. It crowds out investment in infrastructure needs and the industries of the future, while doing little to make us safer against the small numbers of enemies that want to do us harm.

So, if workers are being held hostage to military spending, they are the tens of thousands of public employees facing layoff or attacks on their pay and benefits in cash-strapped cities and states. They are the millions of unemployed in construction, manufacturing and services who could find jobs if we invested wisely in what our country actually needs. And they are the retirees who are in danger of seeing their Social Security and Medicare cut by politicians using the pretext of budget deficits to promote a partisan agenda. Isn’t it long overdue to re-examine our priorities?

Jeff Klein worked as a machinist at GE in Lynn for 12 years and later for the Mass Water Resources Authority, were he was president of a NAGE-SEIU union local. He is now retired and lives in Boston.


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Jeff Klein is a writer and speaker on Middle East issues who travels frequently to the region.  An earlier version of this piece, with illustrations, can be found in his occasional blog: “At a Slight Angle to the Universe.” He can be reached at jjk123@comcast.net.

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