It is generally known that the United States has lost 3 million manufacturing jobs since the economic downturn that began in 1999. Perhaps not as well known is the fact that 87 percent of those jobs were union-represented. Many of the losses occurred when struggling companies could not compete and simply went out of business. More occurred when hard-pressed companies reduced their workforce or farmed out production work to reduce costs. In most cases, the actions to reduce costs were taken not to fatten profits, but simply to survive. A major factor in many of those job losses was the refusal of entrenched unions to accept constructive changes that would reduce costs and improve productivity.
The GE Aircraft Engine plant in Evendale is a case in point. When I worked there from the mid-1950s to the late 1980s, the plant employed 12,000 to 14,000 hourly workers with excellent wages and benefits. During that period, worldwide competition in the jet engine business was increasing rapidly, and reductions in the cost of our products became mandatory. But for the most part, union leaders refused to accept changes proposed by management to improve efficiency and reduce costs. Finally, after years of fruitless negotiations and several crippling strikes, the local managers began to farm out production work to smaller plants around the country.
GE is still producing great jet engines, but very little of the production work is being done at the Evendale plant. That vast facility with untold millions of dollars of capital investment is now devoted largely to engineering and development.
With the economy showing improvement, many companies are starting to expand activities and hire workers. For example, General Electric has launched a major new product line, and is rapidly becoming the world leader in the design, manufacture and installation of wind energy systems. That initiative and many others are creating new jobs every day, many of which are union-represented.
Let us hope that union officials throughout the country will lead their members in the direction of cooperation rather than confrontation in all their dealings with managers of the business enterprises that are creating the jobs. That's our best bet for avoiding future recessions with attendant job losses and tragic disruptions of families.
W.T. "Ted" Martin worked for 35 years as a manager in engineering and development at the GE Aircraft Engine plant in Evendale. He retired in 1988.
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