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General Electric to Close Kentucky Light Bulb Plant.

August 10, 2009

The General Electric Co. announced on July 23 that it would be shutting down its Consumer and Industrial Kentucky Glass Plant in Lexington, Ky., which since 1946 has manufactured glass bulbs called “envelopes” for incandescent light bulbs.

The shutdown is scheduled for July 2010.

The news stunned Lexington Local 1627 Business Manager David Butcher, who represents 114 workers at the plant. “I knew there was trouble but that was the last thing I expected to hear,” he said.  

That local had recently negotiated an agreement with the company to help reduce costs by agreeing to a wage freeze and flexible overtime regulations, hoping to buy more time so GE could update its facilities to be more competitive.  

“I thought we had extended the life of the plant by at least three to five years,” he said.

But last week management broke the news to him. “I told them, ‘I thought we had an agreement.’” Butcher said. “All they could tell me was that ‘the company decided to go in another direction.’”

GE also announced that it intended to close its nonunion incandescent assembly plant in Winchester, Va., which has 203 employees, and its glass plant in Niles, Ohio – represented by the United Electrical Workers – which has 109 employees.

New federal legislation calls for a switch to energy-efficient bulbs, making incandescent lights obsolete. “Market decline for incandescent types of bulbs has accelerated with governments around the world setting new standards for efficiency,” said Roy Wilson, general manager of GE’s North America Lighting Manufacturing in a written statement.

Compact fluorescent lights, which use 75 percent less energy than incandescent bulbs, are increasingly replacing Thomas Edison’s original invention on the market. But the vast majority of GE’s CFLs are made in China, meaning the phasing out of incandescent bulbs has translated into lost jobs in the United States and Canada.

And it’s not just GE. Aurora, Ohio based-TCP Inc., one the largest manufacturers of CFLs, makes nearly all of its energy-efficient products in China.

Butcher is hopeful that the company can be convinced to retool the Lexington plant to produce the more green-friendly bulbs in the United States, but unbalanced trade laws give GE little incentive to keep the work at home. “There’s no one really pushing the company to make the bulbs here,” said Fourth District International Representative Bill Dietz. “It’s a shame that our political leaders haven’t been more proactive about finding ways to keep the work in the U.S.”

“We understand that we need to build a more environmentally friendly economy,” Butcher said. “But we need to make sure it’s not on the backs of working people. There has to be a balance.”

Approximately 56 percent of employees are eligible for early retirement. Employees with less than 15 years on the job will receive severance payments of one and half weeks’ salary per year of service. Those with who have been there longer will get two weeks. Younger workers will have the option of preferential placement at up to GE facilities across the country.

Contractual language gives the local 60 days to present alternatives to the plant closing.  Butcher plans to work with Kentucky AFL-CIO President Bill Londrigan to lobby the state and federal officials for assistance in developing a strategy to convince GE to keep the factory open.

“We created a workable agreement to increase their productivity,” he said. “GE needs to give the plant a chance to retool because we’re going to lose a lot of experienced and good workers if it doesn’t.”



Photo used under a Creative Commons License from Flickr user Ashley or something.