IBEW faces huge dues hit in Indiana

GE announced Thursday its intent to close the Bloomington (IN) refrigerator plant by late 2009, informing nearly 900 employees who work there of the possible plant shutdown. Plant manager Kent Suiters said the decision comes because rising material and labor costs aren't meshing with what consumers are willing to spend on side-by-side refrigerators. The westside plant has manufactured those refrigerators since 1967.

"The market changes very quickly," he said. "It's just a bad market situation." He said the plant lost about $45 million last year, and the same amount or more is expected this year.

GE employs about 896 people in Bloomington: 837 hourly employees belonging to the IBEW union, and 59 salaried employees.

Suiters walked the assembly line floor Thursday, talking with employees and hearing their concerns, such as future benefits and pay. Suiters said 60 percent of the employees would qualify for buyouts under the GE retirement plan.

If the plant does close next year, it will leave behind not only a 110-acre site but a big gap in the city's manufacturing sector, which has taken hard hits over the years with the closings of Thomson/RCA and ABB/Westinghouse and dramatic layoffs at Otis Elevator and GE.

Employment at the local GE plant reached a peak in 1999 with about 3,200 employees. But layoffs began the next year, with 735 workers losing their jobs in December 2000 and 900 laid off in June 2001.

While Suiters shared with employees the company's plan to shut down the plant by the fourth quarter of next year, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 2249 has a chance to propose recommendations or alternatives to the plan during a "decision bargaining" period.

The union, which represents the plant's 837 hourly employees, has 60 days to offer its plan.

Last summer, the GE union approved a four-year contract that called for employees to receive a 16 percent pay raise over that time.

Union president Bill Mitchell said Thursday he doesn't know what stones have been left unturned, but he is planning to take advantage of the opportunity to submit alternatives in an effort to help save the plant.

"We'll give it our best shot," he said.

Mitchell said any alternatives would have to be approved by the company and the union membership.

He said the union will need to get "very creative" to come up with a solution.

A solution the company has been unable to find.

Suiters said the employees have done everything asked of them, but that market forces are just too much. "Consumers want more for less," he said.

Sales of GE side-by-side refrigerators declined 10 percent in the past year, according to Kim Freeman, global public relations manager for the company. She said consumer preferences are shifting toward models with freezers on the bottom.

About the plant:

-- Employs 896 people, hourly and salary: 837 hourly employees, and 59 salaried employees.

-- Has 500 retirees.

-- Covers 110 acres, 1 million square feet.

-- Produces about 450,000 side-by-side refrigerators a year.

-- Production line of workers is 2,800 feet long, with about 275-300 employees on a shift.

-- Uses 77 dock doors.

-- Overhead conveyors span nearly five miles; floor conveyors are more than a mile long.

-- Locally made refrigerators are in 180 countries.

-- Top buyers are Home Depot and Lowe's.

-- $200 million invested in the plant since 2000.

-- More than 300,000 pounds of steel used a day.


Until a final decision is made about the plant's future, it's premature to say how the work or employees would be phased out if the plant shuts down, Suiters said.

About 450,000 side-by-side refrigerators roll off the local line each year. The 30 or so models are considered on the lower-to-middle end, Suiters said. He said he's sure that the Bloomington plant is one of the last in the country that manufactures side-by-side refrigerators. It is the only side-by-side GE plant, though the Louisville, Ky.-based company produces higher-end, built-in refrigerators in Tennessee.

Where production of the side-by-side refrigerators would go if the plant closes hasn't yet been determined, Suiters said.

Announcement of the plans to shut the plant down came eight months after a large celebration of the plant's 40th anniversary and the approach of the 20-millionth refrigerator coming off the local production line.

Community leaders, state politicians and local business officials were invited May 10 to help mark the occasion. Staff led tours of the million-square-foot plant after a presentation traced four decades of operation and honored employees - two of whom had worked there since that first year in 1967.

Now, many of those same leaders will meet today to discuss the likely loss of one of the largest and oldest manufacturers in the area, and how it will affect the community.

Delivering the news to the employees was tough for Suiters, a local GE employee for nearly 20 years who started out as a supervisor. He said he found out about the decision "very recently."

"It's very hard for me to go through this. Emotionally, much more than I thought it would be," he said.

He said his focus was helping the employees transition if the plant does close and answering any questions.

Union president Mitchell said the mood of the plant was somber Thursday.

"This is a very frustrating, disappointing day with the announcement of the plant closing," he said. "Our employees have worked so hard and done everything the company asked of them and more."


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