Coronavirus: GE workers protest and demand company build ventilators

'Our country depends on these highly skilled workers and not they’re wondering why they are facing layoffs instead of having the opportunity to use their unbelievable skills to help save lives'

Graig Graziosi
Tuesday 31 March 2020 21:12 BST
California fixes broken ventilators received from federal government

General Electric factory workers protested on Monday in an act of solidarity to demand the company use its factories to produce ventilators for use in the fight against the coronavirus.

As the peak of coronavirus infections and deaths is still nearly two weeks away, GE workers have demanded the company convert its jet engine factories to begin producing ventilators.

Vice News reported that workers at the company’s Massachusetts aviation facility stood six feet apart and held a silent protest. Union members at the Boston headquarters marched six feet apart and said the company should retrofit its spaces to fight the pandemic.

The protests come days after GE announced it would lay off 10 per cent of its domestic aviation workforce, resulting in job losses for nearly 2,600 workers. In addition to the layoff, the company also said it would temporarily lay off half of its maintenance workers in hopes it would save the company “$50m to $1bn.”

GE, which fulfils defence contracts for the US government, would be among the companies set to receive a federal financial bailout from the multi-trillion dollar coronavirus stimulus package.

The company’s healthcare division already manufactures ventilators and is one of the nation’s largest providers of the machines. Members of the Industrial Division of Communications Workers of America believe other factories under the GM umbrella could be converted to produce the devices.

“If GE trusts us to build, maintain and test engines which go on a variety of aircraft where millions of lives are at take, why wouldn’t they trust us to build ventilators?” IUE-CWA Local 860004 President Jake Aguanaga said during a press conference.

A spokesperson for General Electric told The Independent: “GE is working around the clock to increase production of much-needed medical equipment. GE Healthcare has already doubled ventilator production capacity, with a plan to double it again by June, in addition to partnering with Ford Motor Company to further increase ventilator production. We continue to explore additional opportunities to support the fight against COVID-19, while continuing to support mission-critical work for our customers as well.”

The push by the workers to build ventilators comes at a time when the life-saving machines are in short supply. President Donald Trump recently enacted the Defense Production Act to compel General Motors to redirect part of their manufacturing capacity to produce ventilators for beleaguered medical staff overwhelmed by the spread of the coronavirus.

“Ventilators are desperately needed at hospitals in New York, California, Washington State and Florida. They soon will be in short supply from the East Coast to the West Coast, from Puerto Rico to Hawaii, from Alaska and Illinois to Texas,” CWA President Chris Shelton said.

Richard Branson’s rocket company, Virgin Orbit, is also on track to begin building “mass-producible” ventilators as soon as April, pending an approval on the company’s design.

The New York Times reported Sunday that public health officials anticipated ventilator shortages more than a decade ago and enacted a plan to build a fleet of new machines to accommodate possible viral outbreaks. The company the government contracted to build the machines was bought out by a larger firm and the machines were never built.

In a “Fox and Friends” interview Monday morning, President Donald Trump said he ordered federal officials to ship ventilators directly to hospitals in need.

Mr Shelton questioned why, when the country is facing an unprecedented healthcare crisis and shortage of life-saving medical equipment, one of the nation’s largest builders of the equipment would choose to lay off its workforce.

“Most Americans are not aware that the best ventilators are already made by General Electric within the company’s healthcare division,” Mr Shelton said. “Our country depends on these highly skilled workers and now they’re wondering why they are facing layoffs instead of having the opportunity to use their unbelievable skills to help save lives.”

UPDATE 31.03.20: A previous version of this article reported that General Electric factory workers had "walked off" their jobs as part of a protest calling for the company to use its factories to produce ventilators. We have been asked the clarify that in fact, the protest took place outside of working hours. The article has been amended to reflect this.

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