A tiny town in upstate New York roughly the size of our own Kenneth City faces 2014 with the likely closing of its 75-year-old GE plant. Hundreds of workers there earned up to $29 an hour making capacitors for electric transmission lines.
The plant was built in the World War II heydays of New York State manufacturing, where GE plants in places like Schenectady were deemed cutting edge, and once innovative giants like Eastman Kodak and Xerox arose to put the city of Rochester on the world's business map.
GE announced this past fall that it would move its manufacturing operations in Fort Edward along the Hudson River to an existing GE facility in Clearwater. Starting in this year's fourth quarter, Clearwater stands to gain more than 200 new jobs and a $49 million GE expansion for a "center of excellence."
GE Energy Management, the division overseeing Fort Edward and Clearwater plants, tells me its center of excellence will help "leverage Clearwater's expertise in manufacturing and design engineering, promote innovation, maximize efficiencies, simplify operations, and become more cost competitive."
What makes one place a winner, and the other a loser?
Why has New York state lost 42 percent of manufacturing jobs from 1990 through 2006, while Florida lost just 18 percent over the same period?
During talks with the union over the New York plant's fate, GE demanded an hourly wage cut of $17.88 for 163 workers, effectively reducing their hourly wage to $11.12.
GE disputes these wage figures for accuracy, saying those wage levels were the union's assessment.
The union refused what in effect would be a two-thirds pay cut. It staged rallies outside GE's gates and collected signatures on petitions to keep the plant — rife with 1940s-era equipment — in operation. But GE says the union never put forth any wage concessions in their proposal to the company.
Last month, full-page ads by Local 332 of the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America ran in upstate newspapers criticizing New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo for doing so little to help save the plant.
By the way, those new GE jobs in Clearwater won't pay anything close to $29 an hour. It's that wage difference — enhanced by Florida's weaker union presence, lower taxes and still cheaper cost of living — that woos more jobs out of places like upstate New York.
And it's that bigger migration trend of jobs-done-for-less that will help drive Florida's population past New York's early this year. In so doing, the Sunshine State officially becomes No. 3 in size behind Texas and California.
GE's Fort Edward plant also suffers a notorious environmental past. Decades ago, hazardous coolant fluids called polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) in the plant were dumped into the Hudson River. GE was sued and fined by the federal government, and 200 miles of the Hudson were declared a Superfund site. To this day, the long stretch of river still requires careful dredging to remove the pollutants.
Hopefully, GE's expansion here will mean a brighter legacy.
Contact Robert Trigaux at [email protected]