The Electrical Worker online
August 2014

G.E.'s Atlanta Repair Shop Succeeds
with IBEW Excellence
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Rough times for the U.S. paper industry, under pressure from imported paper, have been around so long it's hard to remember the good times when entire communities welcomed the pungent stench of a paper mill because of good union jobs, including those in the mills' own powerhouses.

Now, some of those same trials are visiting coal-fired power plants across the country as tighter environmental regulations take effect.

Efficiently maintaining the massive turbine generators and rotors that produce power in these aging facilities within tight budgets becomes more critical than ever.

At General Electric's steam turbine generator-repair facility in Chamblee, a suburb of Atlanta, 62 members of Local 613 pour their skills into rejuvenating turbines and generators for powerhouses and a variety of power plants.

Performing to exacting tolerances, machinists, mechanics, winders and welders have set a standard for safety, helping move the company to invest in new technology to improve a shop that has survived that company's own consolidation moves.

In 2013, labor and management negotiated a new local agreement covering the shop that introduced some controversial elements but guaranteed no layoffs through June 2016. The number of new hires has exceeded expectations. Many of them are recent military veterans.

"I love what I do, especially exploring and inspecting equipment," says Tony Baber, a machinist and Local 613 shop chairman and executive board member.

Incoming parts requiring repair travel through the shop where they are inspected. If needed, parts are disassembled and sand blasted for cleaning. Baber uses ultraviolet lights to perform non-destructive evaluations on incoming parts. Then the parts are measured and the data is sent to engineers for evaluation.

"Most folks who turn on light switches don't know what it takes to produce electrical power," says Jim Vono, G.E.'s general manager for thermal repairs in North America. "These workers are on the mark, repairing the equipment that keeps air conditioning operating in the summer and heat flowing in the winter."

Vono says the work of IBEW welders who repair the diaphragms of turbines to the precise profile and dimensions is an "art form."

"I respect my craft and the more senior guys who hand it down to us. I enjoy welding and the uniqueness of our work," says Randy Smith, vice-chairman of the bargaining unit who has traveled to overseas facilities, as well as many U.S. facilities to perform repairs. One of his co-workers, he says, spent 11 months away from Atlanta working on restoring a powerhouse that had suffered a catastrophic failure.

In 2010, Smith transferred from Richmond, Va., along with Baber and a co-worker after G.E. closed its repair shop, a bargaining unit of the Machinists. "The work we do is a critical component of the business of generating electricity," says Smith.

Turbine components and generators come into the shop, some more than 50 years old, undergoing their fourth or fifth overhaul. Smith and other shop craftsmen assess what kind of work will be needed to bring their stationary components into specifications.

"Our welders measure the turbines' worn surfaces, then weld and grind them back to the proper shape and contour," says Smith.

Employees who are often scheduled for overtime, say they are confident that the shop's reputation for excellence and mutual commitment to quality will ensure a level of stability on G.E.'s quality of work.

"Overall, G.E. and the IBEW have a good relationship. We both want the Atlanta shop to be successful," says Smith, a native of Mississippi, where his father worked as a Continental Can machinist and his mother worked at Huntington Ingalls IBEW-organized naval shipyard in Pascagoula.

"Our business is constantly changing," says Mark Harrison, the Atlanta service center's manager. "We are always trying to understand how our customers [in the power and water sector] are operating their fleets and developing our productivity and technological edge," says Harrison. "We've made a lot of investments in Atlanta."

Newly purchased equipment includes two horizontal boring mills, a balancing machine, a Blanchard surface grinder and an automated blast machine.

Harrison says G.E. is constantly asking what effect developments in public policy, including tax credits, will have on power development.

Low prices for natural gas and large reserve capacity for electricity, combined with environmental regulations have heightened competition for power plant repair work.

"We seek to optimize our shop utilization at each location," says Harrison. Depending upon scheduling of work in other facilities, he says, the Atlanta shop may perform repairs for customers from Oregon to California and Maine.

"We have the capability and technical know-how to succeed," says Baber, expressing confidence that a cohesive IBEW workforce will continue to make the grade. He says G.E. encourages members to enhance their own training with tuition reimbursement. "We don't always see eye-to-eye," he says. "But we have a good labor-management team."

All bargaining unit members of the demographically-diverse unit have joined Local 613. Asked how he has accomplished 100 percent union density in a so-called "right-to-work" state, Baber says, "I keep members informed and let them know what the union has been able to accomplish."

Without the collective bargaining support and intervention from the IBEW Manufacturing Department, the shop might have failed, says Baber.

Baber, who worked at the massive Huntington Ingalls shipyard in Newport News, Va., for nearly 20 years, holds monthly unit meetings in the shop's break room. He makes members aware of Local 613 activities and encourages members to brainstorm over how to improve the unit's relationship with G.E.

Repair shop members are starting to participate in Local 613-sponsored events, attending Atlanta Braves games and Six Flags theme parks with other union members.

"We represent one of the finest G.E. shops anywhere," says Local 613 Business Manager Gene O'Kelley Jr. "The excellence and skill level of our members' workmanship has helped bring work into the shop and new members into the union. The shop might not still be there if it wasn't for the members being willing to do what needed to be done."

IBEW represents workers at several G.E. plants and the local union participates in System Council EM-5. In addition to Local 613, they include: New York Local 3; Milwaukee, Wis., Local 663; Houston Local 716; Medford, Mass., Local 1014; Lexington, Ky., Local 1627; Buffalo, N.Y., Local 1813; Bloomington, Ind., Local 2249 and Beaumont, Texas, Local 2286.


Welding turbines is an 'art form,' says Jim Vono, G.E. executive.


Atlanta Local 613 members have set a standard for safety and quality, attracting more investment from G.E. in steam turbine generator repairs.