WINCHESTER, VA--“Government did us in,” says Dwayne Madigan, whose job will terminate when General Electric closes its factory next July.
Madigan makes a product that will soon be illegal to sell in the U.S. - a regular incandescent bulb. Two years ago, his employer, GE, lobbied in favor of the law that will outlaw the bulbs.
Madigan’s colleagues, waiting for their evening shift to begin, all know that GE is replacing the incandescents for now with compact fluorescents bulbs, which GE manufactures in China.
Last month, GE announced it will close the Winchester Bulb Plant 80 miles west of D.C. As a result, 200 men and women will lose their jobs. GE is also shuttering incandescent factories in Ohio and Kentucky, axing another 200 jobs.
GE blamed environmental regulations for the closing. The first paragraph of the company’s July 23 press release explained:
“A variety of energy regulations that establish lighting efficiency standards are being implemented in the U.S. and other countries, in some cases this year, and will soon make the familiar lighting products produced at the Winchester Plant obsolete.”
The U.S. legislation in question was a provision in the 2007 energy bill that required all bulbs sold in the U.S.—beginning in 2012 for some wattages—to meet high efficiency standards.
Given the steady death of U.S. manufacturing, this factory was going to close sooner or later, anyway. Workers tell me they were happy when they heard in June that the factory was staying open at least through mid-2011—a plan GE abandoned the next month.
But the light bulb law is clearly the main driver in closing this factory. After all, the product they make here will be contraband by 2014.
“That was the nail in the coffin,” Madigan says.
These men, waiting in the shade in front of the employees’ entrance to the plant on a hot afternoon, all know another pertinent fact about the light-bulb law that is killing their jobs: GE lobbied in favor of it.
Why did GE, founded by Thomas Edison, support a bill that killed the traditional incandescent light bulb?
The company said in 2007 it wanted to make sure it was working under a single federal efficiency standard, rather than a patchwork of state regulations. GE also touts its compact fluorescents as one of the green products in its “eco-magination” initiative.
The workers don’t buy the green arguments, pointing to the mercury gas that’s in the fluorescents. “It’s illegal to dump mercury in the river, but not in the landfill,” two of them say in unison—it’s become a dark joke at the factory.
Robert Pifer, who will also be laid off in July if he doesn’t find a new job by then, has an explanation for GE’s support of the light-bulb law and its shift to the more expensive fluorescents. “Are they not just trying to force-feed people stuff they don’t want to buy?”
So, GE gets environmentalist brownie points for selling “clean” light bulbs, and they also get to charge more for their bulbs. But there’s another advantage—they save on labor with fluorescents, because they make the fluorescents in China.
Not only are wages lower there, but so are the regulatory burdens, both environmental and labor. The Times of London recently reported, “Large numbers of Chinese workers have been poisoned by mercury, which forms part of the compact fluorescent lightbulbs.”
CFLs, however, are probably not the light bulb of the future. Right before it started lobbying for a federal light bulb law, GE announced that it would start making high-efficiency incandescent by 2010. GE doesn’t say where it will manufacturer its high-efficiency incandescent bulb, but all signs suggest it won’t be here in Winchester.
GE spokesman Peter O’Toole responded by pointing out GE has relocated its manufacturing of Hybrid Electric Heat Pump Water Heaters to Kentucky, from China. They promise 400 new “green-collar” jobs, offsetting the loss of the light-bulb jobs—but not in Winchester.
I ask the men what they plan to do when the factory closes down. Some say they’ll retire. Others can only shrug their shoulders. Pifer says he’ll just have to take a job at less than half of what he currently makes.
“I live paycheck to paycheck,” Pifer tells me. He has a son, and he owns a house nearby, he says. “So what am I going to do when I’m earning $11 an hour?”
These men are the victims of the green revolution—a revolution their employer is leading.