The Fight for Ventilators in Dallas | Interview with GE Workers

On February 20, 2020, GE announced the intent to close this shop with the employees that keep our national electric grid running. Local IUE-CWA members are demanding GE use this facility and its highly-skilled workers to manufacture ventilators, and are calling for increased safety measures to protect them at this time. The plant has won the company’s coveted “Center of Excellence” designation and has a clean room which would help facilitate ventilator production.  Snehal Shingavi spoke to Walter Bradford, President, and Danielle Jones, shop steward, of IUE-CWA Local 86788 in Dallas, TX.

Tell me how the plan to try and convert your shop into a ventilator producing facility came about?

WB: We have space in the shop.  We have three clean rooms to make ventilators.  We’re waiting on the approval from the President to get the robots we need to get this operation up and running.  This is something that we can completely handle. They are planning on shutting this place down anyway. We are getting equal attention as the other plants.  We haven’t really gotten any news from anyone about the possibility of converting these plants. We haven’t gotten any word about the work.

DJ: They announced that they were going to close our shop and then this virus hit – GE has a contract to build the ventilators but they are farming them out to Ford and GMAC, so a lot of people are being let go.  The people who are being let go want the work to come here. It’s completely possible for GE to save our jobs.

What’s the mood on the shop floor?

WB: People on the floor are excited.  We want to do something new, and we think that we want to show GE that our own people can actually make ventilators.  And we could be helping out GE.

DJ: I’m one of the ones that just got laid off.  People are pretty worried. If they do send the work away (like we think they are doing) they are in breach of the contract, but we can not prove it.  We are out until the shop closes next year. They aren’t allowed to call it a permanent layoff, so we are on TLOW, temporary lack of work. Our last day of work was on Friday, and they gave us a return date of 5/4 but they are just going to extend it.  Last year I was laid off for seven months. I have 6 people in my house and I am the only one that works. I’m trying to see what the outcome of our shop is, maybe get a sense of their plans for all of us that are being let go. I really didn’t want to travel because my youngest is 6 years old.  My plan is to work On Site Repair, which means a lot of travel because you go to where the work is – and that’s not a desirable option. I might do it for a short term and there is decent money to be made. And that might let me look elsewhere. 

WB: The guys are worried about layoffs.  The layoffs are starting next week. There is a lack of work.  Ten people are about to get laid off next week, starting on Monday.  We have customers that are not shutting down their generators and rotors right now, and that’s the normal work that we have in the spring. 

What’s the plan for your GE facility?

WB: We were told of an intent to close in February.  We were told that the volume is low and the cost is high.  We can’t beat that argument. We can’t get businesses to shut equipment down.  We just aren’t getting enough volume into the shop.

What is the plan for the people who work there?

WB: You get two weeks laid off at GE and then if there is still no work, you get another two weeks laid off.  They keep laying you off until there is work. And there is no work so people can’t get rehired.

Can you actually make ventilators at your shop?

WB: Our shop is at roughly 200 square feet.  We aren’t a gigantic shop. It’s really up to them to bring this work to Dallas.  We are in a good place in Dallas, we have a plant in Michigan, we have a GM plant in Arlington, we just want to make more ventilators to help out the American people.  We’ve got machinists and generator technicians and skilled winders. It’s not that hard to make ventilators because they are doing it at GM and Ford.

DJ: People are very fast to learn and really want to do this.  We work on generators. So we have three clean rooms, and we have the machinists on the other side that can build the parts.  This is something that we have the capacity for.

Why are your coworkers so interested in making ventilators?

WB: This is something that we could be doing right now.  Texas is on the rise of people who have the coronavirus. The numbers are still going up.  The state of Texas is still big and we want to help out the American people.

Is there a lot of support for the union?

WB: They’ve been talking about the union a lot; the intent to close is hanging over people’s head and  people are responding to the union’s support.

DJ: I think most people don’t think it [turning the shop into a ventilator factory] will happen here, but no one wants to lose their job.  Some folks who are retirement age want out. Nobody really believes that they are going to keep the shop open. The younger generation wants the stable work that would come with ventilator work, but they are really worried about the jobs not coming here.

What about safety on your job?

WB: Nothing is really happening out here.  We still haven’t gotten any PPEs or things to wipe our hands or equipment down.  We only get one mask a week. If I want to get more masks, I can’t. The safety technician is not providing enough protective gear.

DJ: They do have face masks, but they are being kept by the EHS manager – Environment, Health and Safety manager – but he keeps it in his office, but he tells us that we only get one a week and he keeps all of the hand sanitizer, because he says people are stealing it.  Not sure how we are on gloves. 

What have the last few weeks been like at GE?

WB: If you had talked me to a week ago, you would have gotten the angrier side of me—but they are making some changes now.  They are putting hand sanitizer out now.

DJ: We were worried about coming to work and getting sick.  So we spent a lot of time just worried about that. But now we are just worried about having any kind of job at all.

Are you allowed to take sick leave at GE?

WB: You are allowed to take sick leave, but you have to have proof that you or your family is sick with coronavirus.  You can’t take time to self-quarantine. At the beginning we didn’t know anything. Now there’s a security guard who takes your temperature.  If you’re over 100.6 you have to wait in your car for another check and then you are told to go home. We have been fighting tooth and nail for this.  In the beginning it was hard. They were letting people come to work sick,

Do you like working for GE?

WB: I love working here.  I wish that there wasn’t an intent to close right now, because this is a great job.

What can folks in the community be doing?

DJ: A lot of people in the community don’t really know that we are here or what is happening.  It would be really good if people just knew what was happening. I would like GE to be fair and consider being fair to us.  It would be great if they tried to keep our jobs and treat us decently.

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