FORT EDWARD — The announcement Thursday came as no surprise to union workers at General Electric Co.’s plant.
On Sunday, when the 60-day bargaining period ended, the union predicted GE would go forward with closing the 75-year-old plant on Route 4.
Lawns throughout the area have been dotted with signs urging the company to stay. The union staged rallies outside the company gates and collected signatures on petitions to keep the plant operating.
“This was a difficult decision, and we fully understand the impact it has on our employees, their families and the community. The decision is not a reflection on the diligent efforts of our Fort Edward employees, who have worked with us to make the business more competitive. Regrettably, those efforts have not delivered the cost reductions needed to position the business for the future. The Ft Edward site has been losing money for several years and it has been difficult to win orders in an extremely challenging marketplace.” GE executives said in a news release Thursday.
United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers Local 332 and GE engaged in 17 bargaining sessions that ended with GE rejecting the union’s proposal.
The union proposed trimming its workforce 10 percent by eliminating 20 jobs through retirements and automating and modernizing 1940s equipment using $22 million in government financing through a public-private partnership.
The union asked to extend bargaining by 30 days to December but was denied.
GE executives say the decision is final, but union leaders say they’re not giving up.
“We’re making plans because this fight is not over. We’re figuring out now what the next steps are. We were not surprised by GE’s announcement. We knew it on Sunday,” said Peter Knowlton, UE Northeast Region president.
He said the process was “two months of wasted activity” and “very disheartening,” but added national union officials will remain in the area to keep trying to find a way to keep the plant open.
“We may not be able to stop them. But our basic rule of thumb is we don’t stop unless we know it’s 100 percent hopeless, and that’s not the case right now,” Knowlton said.
The plant, which makes electrical capacitors that go into transmission lines, will continue to operate at least until September 2014. GE executives told employees
Sept. 18 they were considering moving operations to an existing plant in Clearwater, Fla., to build “a new manufacturing Center of Excellence.”
The Florida site, which is not unionized, currently employs 450 people in the manufacture of low voltage and medium voltage electrical components, such as transformers.
GE spokeswoman Chris Horne said the Center of Excellence will incorporate multiple product lines to “take advantage of manufacturing economies of scale and efficiencies of shared support structures.”
Horne said the company won’t disclose exactly how much it will save by moving operations.
She said wages at the new plant depend on local market dynamics.
“Our wage structure is designed to attract and retain employees,” she said.
Horne said in September the company has plans to move other manufacturing plants to Florida to reduce costs by taking advantage of the buildings, engineers, human resources and other departments already there.
UE Local 332 President Scott Gates said he and Business Agent Angel Sardina were given a letter Thursday notifying them of the official decision, and other employees were notified by email.
“We’re strategizing, coming up with some good solid plans. It’s not over yet. There are 10 months left in the fight,” Gates said.
When the plant closes, the area will lose about 177 manufacturing positions and another 20 salaried workers.
Horne said the company “will help employees explore other GE job opportunities. They will have the opportunity to apply for Clearwater jobs through the internal job posting process.”
Gates said the union has “a pretty solid plant-closing benefit in the national agreement.”
He said individual employees will have options to choose different plants.
“We don’t know what those places are yet. Everybody has their own story, they have to evaluate their own situation,” Gates said.
A union statement Sunday said GE “scoffed” at the union proposal.
“It is clear to us now that GE was just going through the motions to fulfill its legal and contractual obligations and never seriously considered any alternative to moving to Clearwater, Fla.,” the union statement reads.
Knowlton added Thursday, “We knew the whole decision bargaining was a sham. The company had no intention of bargaining with us and staying in Fort Edward. I think they do want to craft the illusion there was actually some way we could craft a proposal to keep them here.”
Horne strongly disputed this allegation. “We negotiated in good faith and took the decision bargaining process very seriously. The proposal submitted by the union fell well short of the savings and efficiencies that would be generated by the proposed move to Clearwater - savings that are critical to the future of the business.”
Horne said GE was serious about negotiating.
“That’s absolutely not true. Those allegations are completely unfounded,” Horne said.
The union said GE wanted more than $6 million per year in labor cost-cutting on top of what the union proposed. That would equate to a wage cut of $17.88 per hour for the 163 workers who would have remained at the plant. The union said the cut would have reduced wages to $11.12 per hour.
“We disagreed with the union’s assessment of the wages that would be required and told them so,” said Horne. “They never offered any wage concessions in their proposal to us.”
GE’s payroll at the GE plant is about $12 million a year.
Fort Edward Supervisor Mitchell Suprenant said he wasn’t surprised to hear the decision Thursday.
“It’s disappointing. But we’ll survive. In this area, we’ve lost plenty of good-paying jobs, and we’ve rebounded. I expect we will rebound again,” he said.
Suprenant said the plant property’s assessment, with buildings and land, is $7 million to $8 million.
“We’re going to hopefully work with GE to try to make that a viable piece of property. There are 31 acres of land there. It’s on a major corridor. I think if they work with us, we can maybe turn that into something positive out there,” Suprenant said.
Horne said the company will continue to “own and maintain the property for the foreseeable future.”
“This announcement will have no effect on our ongoing remdiation work at the site and we will continue to meet all our environmental commitments,” Horne said.
Union officials blasted lawmakers on the state and national level, saying they’ve been mostly absent.
“Some politicians say they were working behind the scenes. Maybe they were. We don’t know. Maybe they should have been working with the people who will be affected the most,” Gates said.
Mayor Matt Traver said he is meeting with the union Friday and said he’s not giving up either.
“It’s pretty disappointing to hear about this. I’m a little angry, no doubt. I think the next step is to get in touch with our state leaders to see what they’ve done and what they haven’t done,” Traver said.