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Union Workers In Ohio Try To Stop GE Lighting, Walmart From Shipping Their Jobs To China

GE-Savant Lighting workers in front of the plant in Bucyrus with Congressman Tim Ryan and former State Senator Sean O'Brien (Photo: IUE-CWA)

General Electric Lighting-Savant notified 81 workers at their plant in Bucyrus, Ohio that they would be laid off and production would move to China because of the high cost of producing LED light bulbs.

In response to the planned layoffs, announced as of the first week of January, workers and their union are pushing to save those jobs because they fear job cuts will lead to the closure of the plant that has been open since 1942.

If shut down, that would leave 200 people unemployed in a city of less than 12,000 people.

According to Bucyrus Mayor Jeff Reser, the offshoring of jobs would directly result in a loss of about $100,000 in tax revenue for the city’s budget. It would also mean a substantial loss of local revenue to area businesses. 

IUE-CWA Local 84704, which is a chapter of the industrial division of the Communication Workers of America within AFL-CIO, proposed a joint-labor management study between the union and GE Lighting Savant on what can be done to save as many jobs as possible.

The Ohio AFL-CIO started a petition to rally support from the community to the CEOs of General Electric, Savant, and Walmart, which exclusively purchases and sells the light bulbs produced at the plant. 

Steve Pifer, vice president of the union, has worked at the plant for 11 years. He said the tariffs enacted by former President Donald Trump against China, which are still in place, have increased the cost of materials for the light bulbs. Tariffs made it impossible to compete on costs with finished products from China.

“We need to stop losing jobs. We need our government to step up. If you’re going to add tariffs, put it on a finished product and at least give us a chance. We’re fighting this whole battle with one arm tied behind our back,” Pifer declared. 

“We’ve already tried doing things to help get the cost of it down,” Pifer added. “At the end of the day, what it amounts to is what the cost of materials are. You can take all the labor costs out of it, and they can’t make the bulb as cheap as they can buy it from China.”

On February 6, union members around the United States held protests outside of nearly 50 Walmart stores in Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, California, and several other states to demand Walmart ensure the product line remains in the United States. (This is in line with Walmart’s corporate pledges to support American manufacturing.) 

In May 2020, GE sold the Bucyrus light bulb plant as part of an acquisition of the GE Lighting brand to Savant Systems, Inc and assured employees through the sale all jobs would be secure. 

Twenty-one year-old Antonio Wegener worked at the GE plant in Bucyrus for nearly a year before he was informed he would be one of 81 employees, who will likely lose their job on March 6, if operations are sent overseas to China. 

“It devastated me because I’m just a high school graduate. I graduated in 2019 from a small rural community,” Wegener shared. “For somebody with just a high school education making $17.50 an hour was great money compared to what I was making before—only $11 an hour.

“Minimum wage here is around $8, but you can’t make a living off $8 to $11 an hour,” said Wegener.

According to Wegener, factory layoffs have been common in the area throughout the past few decades. The plant his mom worked at when he was born laid her and other workers off when he was eight years old, and he’s seen several friends and family leave the area or state because of the lack of job prospects. 

“Work is becoming more and more scarce around our area,” Wegener asserted. “These companies nowadays aren’t just happy with making millions of dollars. They want to make billions of dollars, and they’re going to cut costs, even if it means having to lay people off or send production elsewhere.”

Around 12.5 percent of Ohio’s workforce is currently based in manufacturing, an industry that has seen significant decline over the past few decades.

Ohio lost around 400,000 manufacturing jobs between 2000 to 2010, and the COVID-19  pandemic wiped out the gains of some of the jobs lost due to the 2008 economic recession. 

A spokesperson for GE Lighting Savant suggested demand for low-price LED lights have driven down retail prices, making it economically difficult to manufacture the bulbs in the U.S. 

“After investing eight million dollars to launch assembly, and many more millions spent on equipment and world-class expertise to bring costs down, we have not been able to assemble A-19 LEDs in Bucyrus at a cost that retailers and consumers can tolerate. Unfortunately, it’s no longer economically viable to continue to operate the line,” the spokesperson contended. 

A Walmart spokesperson separately added, “While we do discuss production with our supplier partners and have urged them to do everything in their power to preserve these jobs, it’s ultimately GE Lighting’s decision where to manufacture their products.”

Alexandria Rule worked at the plant for about a year when she was informed of the likely layoffs. With her boyfriend, she just purchased and moved into her first house and planned to go back to college. However, those plans were reliant on the schedule and wages she is making from the GE Lighting Savant plant.

“I was comfortable enough to buy a house and get ready to start school, but now I have to figure it out all over again,” Rule stated. “Us employees are just sitting back waiting to know if we are going to have a job in two months or not, and it is beyond scary not knowing what is going to happen.

“The stress and emotional wear this has caused—especially since we are still in the dark—is awful.”

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