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May 2004 IBEW Journal

It was just another morning for Judy Johnson. She reported to the Marion, Indiana, plant of Thomson Inc. where she had worked for the past 33 years coating the delicate funnels that are destined for installation in the rear cabinet of color televisions.

Johnson, treasurer of IBEW Local 1160, was on the job when she received a call about an emergency meeting at the union hall. She arrived at the hall fifteen minutes later, just in time to hear the announcement that the Marion plant was shutting down—immediately. A sister plant in Circleville, Ohio, would also be closing soon. Johnson was stunned.

Brother Mark King preparing to install a Funnel Mold onto the press.

The local news reporters said the closing came as "no surprise" to the workers. Sure, Johnson and others knew that the company "wasn’t going to stay in the U.S. if they could go somewhere else and work people for 50 cents an hour," but, she said: " It doesn’t matter whether you saw it coming or not. You’re still stunned. I’m worried. I started there when I was 18. It’s the only job that I have ever had. Now I’m 51, the sole breadwinner in the family. I wasn’t going to retire until I was 55."

The Marion plant, where cathode ray tubes (CRT) are assembled, opened 75 years ago as Farnsworth Radio and was acquired by RCA. RCA built the Circleville glass manufacturing plant in 1970, the last plant built for RCA—enabling RCA
to manufacture every component of a TV set without dependence upon outside sources. General Electric bought both plants in 1986. Then, in 1988 GE sold its consumer electronics division to Thomson, a French-owned corporation.

The shutdowns will eventually force 1,375 IBEW members out of work. Tube production will be moved to Mexicali, Mexico, as part of Thomson’s strategy to locate 80 percent of its tube production in "low cost countries," including China, Poland and Mexico. In a column in the Indianapolis Star, James Patterson reports that workers of the Mexicali plant make an average wage of $2.30 per hour compared to $16 per hour of workers in Marion. Thomson intends to obtain glass from outside suppliers. The glass making plant will be completely closed by June 14, 2004. The company has also shut down a wood plant in Mocksville, North Carolina, that employed 80 workers who produced cabinets for rear projection TVs.

Brother Jom Peters operating
the panel press.

Local 2331 in Circleville was due to begin negotiations on a new contract with Thomson this month. The company had previously told the union that "extensive" furnace upgrading would be scheduled in 2005. Lonnie Hawk, president and business manager says: "Last year we lost one-third of our work force to lay-offs. This year all of our members—most of them between 34 and 60 years old—are losing their jobs. It will be difficult for them to find decent-paying jobs. Even truck driver openings are requiring five years of experience." At the Marion plant, Local 1160 had agreed to a one-year contract extension. The company previously discussed the prospect of a shutdown due to business competition.

While Thomson’s tube production is moving to Mexico, the competitive pressure that led to the move, and the abandonment of glass making, originates in Asia. Consumer Electronics Daily reported on March 18, 2004: "Thomson’s closing of CRT and TV glass plants is part of the continuing retrenchment of the tube business in the U.S., as manufacturers move production to low-cost regions such as Mexico and the Far East, industry officials said. With direct-view [tube] TV price wars raging at retail, manufacturers have moved in recent years to transfer production of 19- and 20-inch tubes to the Far East, leading to speculation that the 25-inch and up sizes aren’t far behind." A TV retailer interviewed for the article claims that 70 percent of his new TV sales are rear projection models that don’t require tubes; they use color guns to shoot the image onto the screen. The shrinking market for TV’s that contain tubes has heated up the competition.

Another factor in the price wars is "dumping"—selling color televisions in the U.S. for less than the cost of making them—by both China and Malaysia. The IBEW was party, with the U.S. government and other unions, to a petition before the International Trade Commission (ITC) that accuses China and Malaysia of illegally dumping TV’s on the U.S. market. The petitioners are seeking an extra import duty on televisions from China and Malaysia to bring prices closer to the normal value. IBEW International Representative Troy Johnson testified at the ITC hearing last year about the shutdown of the Sharp TV plant in Tennessee that threw 500 IBEW members out of work in 2002 and the lay-offs of IBEW members at Toshiba in Lebanon, Tennessee. The preliminary ruling from the ITC was favorable to the petitioners.

Brother John Hickey inspecting a batch charger with a mix and melt engineer.

The U.S. International Trade Commission scheduled a "final injury" hearing on the dumping case for April 15, 2004. The IBEW members at Toshiba are currently working, but Johnson says that the plant’s future is still in doubt. He is hopeful that the ITC will rule in favor of the petitioners, helping to provide more security for workers at Toshiba and at other U.S. operations where workers are represented by the Electronic Workers-Communications Workers of America (IUE-CWA), the United Steelworkers of America (USWA) and the Glass, Molders and Pottery Workers (GMP). But, says Johnson, "even if we win the ITC case, it doesn’t stop employers from moving production to Mexico, drawing an advantage from the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA)."

Thomson took the "if you can’t beat them, join them" approach to the Far East competition. Tony Blankenship was business manager of Local 2331 for fifteen years and now works in the Manufacturing Department at the IBEW International Office. He said: "I have to laugh when Thomson talks about ‘foreign competition.’ In January 2004 Thomson and TCL International Holdings Limited, the leading multimedia consumer electronic products manufacturer in China, signed a combination agreement in Paris in the presence of the President of the People’s Republic of China and the French prime minister. Our ‘foreign’ competition’ is Thomson." Thomson has sold TCL a 20-year license to use the RCA name, while retaining control of tube and glass making. Blankenship said that Thomson brought four managers in from Europe two years ago to run the Circleville facility. Then they forced 80 supervisors and engineers into retirement. "Among them were key engineers and furnace experts." Blankenship said. They were replaced by others who didn’t have a clue about how to run a glass plant." It wasn’t the first time that Thomson undermined a U.S. facility. In the mid-1990s, the company pitted workers at the Marion plant against workers at the company’s Scranton, Pennsylvania, plant who were organized by IUE for production of large screens TVs. Thomson ended up shutting down the Scranton plant and moving equipment to Mexico.

Brothers Rod Reimer, unidentified management employee, Jim Kingery, unidentified management, and John Hickey inspecting a forehearth gobber after its removal.

Blankenship speculates that Thomson’s long-term goal is to leave manu facturing behind. Thomson owns Technicolor, a major manufacturer of film for movies. It also own Grass Valley, a firm that produces audio for the entertainment industry. He says that they want to end up in services like audio and video replication and out of manufacturing.

Louie Cole, an electrician at Thomson’s Marion, Indiana, plant and vice president of IBEW Local 1160, says of the shutdown: "It’s not competition or wages. It’s flat corporate greed. We agreed to work mandatory Saturdays. It was a complete effort by our members to improve the bottom line. The company still elected not to put more investment in the plants."

The Thomson closing comes one year after the idling of the Corning tube plant near State College, Pennsylvania, a joint venture with Asahi Glass. Corning made a $600 million investment in liquid crystal display computer systems in Taiwan prior to the closing. Over 1,000 members of the Steelworkers (formerly Flint Glass Workers) lost their jobs. Corning sold its tube making equipment to a Chinese manufacturer.

The demise of Thomson’s U.S. interests leaves only four producers of TV tubes in the United States—Matsushita-Toshiba (MT) with plants in Troy, Ohio, and Horseheads, New York; Sony in New Stanton, Pennsylvania; Techneglas Inc. in Columbus, Ohio, Pittston, Pennsylvania, and Perrysburg, Ohio, and Hitachi in Greenville, South Carolina.

Brother Randy Congrove performing Lock Out
Tag Out prior to performing maintenance
on a stud insertion machine.

The Sony facility produces glass for its own needs, leaving Techneglas as the only outside TV glass supplier remaining in the U.S. Formerly, a partnership between Owens-Illinois and Nippon (Japan), Techneglas is now a fully owned subsidiary of Nippon. Bruce Smith, an official of the GMP Union that represents workers at two Techneglas facilities, says: "The company wants concessions on wages and health insurance. We are looking over their books. We’ve already faced considerable downsizing. The Columbus plant had 1,000 workers two years ago; only 350 are left. There’s a market for our product. People who buy plasma TVs will still buy cheaper TV’s for other rooms in their homes, but Techneglas is still crying about foreign competition."

Meanwhile, in Marion and Circleville, the newspapers are featuring reports on the effect of the Thomson loss on local budgets. The Marion Chronicle Tribune reports that the loss of $1.3 million in property taxes [from Thomson] is "just hanging out there, an albatross that could force government to either reduce services or jack up the property tax rates to make up for the loss of income." Several Marion-area manufacturing plants including GenCorp, Essex Wire, Ball-Foster and SCM Paper were closed prior to the Thomson announcement. The Circleville Herald reports that the city stands to lose $278,000 in income taxes from former Thomson workers, constituting 18 percent of the city’s total tax revenues. The Thomson closing deprives the town of $450,000 in water revenue, 31 percent of the total. The public safety budget, general and capital improvement funds are also facing cuts.

Steve Rowland, business manager of Local 1160 in Marion, says: "These devastating shutdowns are all about trade policy. I hope people are aware that, with an election coming up, they need to get registered to vote Mr. Bush out and get someone in who will look out for American workers." Judy Johnson agrees. She says: "We have to talk about repealing NAFTA and other trade deals. We need to keep good manufacturing jobs here in the U.S."

Above: Brother Mike Tuinstra, Keith Young, Sister Lisha Boyer (partially hidden), and Brother Kevin Cox participating in
 the negotiated IBEW EPP program that dealt with Panel Glass Inspection.