General Electric: Still ‘Bringing Good things to Life’?

When his bosses needed him to go to Germany in the final month of his wife’s pregnancy, “Stewart” (his real name withheld to protect his identity) barely returned in time for the birth of his first son. Now after 20 years of loyal service, he is facing termination by December 8 unless he is fully vaccinated for COVID-19. A remote employee with GE Healthcare in Waukesha, Wisconsin, Stewart is not yet seeing any leniency from his corporate leaders. I reached Stewart through his wife “Marie,” and asked for his account of how the implementation of the company’s vaccine mandate, in compliance with Joe Biden’s directive, is affecting him. 

In hearing from Stewart and others in similar circumstances, I found a common thread: Dedicated professionals and skilled workers often with decades of expertise and accomplishments are facing a sudden, steep cliff.

On the possibility that he will need to hit the job market, Stewart told me, “As an employee who is older and an engineer who has worked on specialized software, instead of staying with the current trends, it will be very difficult for me to find another position.” 

If he does find a new position, Stewart added, “I will need to learn a new programming language and there will be a huge learning curve. GE has worked with such old programming that it has hurt my chances of leaving.” 

His statement sounded familiar to me. In my own experience in the medical device industry, companies tend to use antiquated programming languages as firmware for some of their device subsystems that are adequate for the application but often useless outside of their specific fields. It is a unique quirk for industrial professionals with skill sets somewhat out of step with our much more streamlined digital age.

Rules Out the Window

By now, every American has been affected in some way not only by the COVID-19 pandemic and our response to it, but also by federal and state vaccine mandates. For those of us in the health technology and pharmaceutical industries, there is yet another layer of meaning. From day one of working for companies that are FDA regulated, we are drilled in the importance of following the rules and maintaining compliance. This serves both to keep patients safe and to allow the businesses to continue production. The fast roll-out of the Pfizer, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson vaccines naturally caused skepticism among more than a few industry professionals.

“I work with medical devices that must be thoroughly tested for FDA approval,” Stewart said. “Even one small issue could cause us to lose FDA approval of a product and once lost we are required to stop selling and fix it. Why is a medical product such as this that has injured so many allowed to still be distributed?”

Stewart’s anxiety is not uncommon and, in large part, is owing to the atmosphere of information censorship that existed prior to COVID-19 and has become more severe as the crisis has worn on. From the media battling podcaster Joe Rogan over Ivermectin, to the argument over the reliability of the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System (VAERS), it seems that no aspect of the pandemic is free from media spin.

Blue-Collar Advantage?

While all GE employees are affected by the mandate, the leverage each holds regarding exemptions is different. Whereas initially there was anxiety expressed on the company’s social media network, Yammer, that the religious exemption forms were biased in a way to automatically disqualify applicants, in the last week of October approvals began to trickle in amid jubilant reactions. 

Nevertheless, tens of thousands of employees remain on edge over how the mandate will affect them personally. 

In mid-October, GE Aviation employees at the Hooksett, New Hampshire plant decided not just to object internally and file exemption requests, but also to stage a walkout. A similar group in Lafayette, Indiana followed suit later that week, with workers complaining that the long submission form for religious exemptions was excessively probing of their beliefs and required them to give exhaustively detailed explanations of their objections to vaccines.

I reached out to one of the leaders of the New Hampshire protests, a machine operator whom I will call “Calvin.” His efforts began with a short call for everyone to organize, but the employee protest spread from Hooksett to other sites. At GE Aviation’s Evendale, Ohio plant north of Cincinnati, scenes of union workers trudging out into the open air showed that the company is reckoning with resistance not only from career professionals like Stewart but from skilled tradesmen who are even more difficult to replace. 

“I am unable to speak for everyone else, but I have already found a backup job in case things fail here,” Calvin told me. “It’s further away and a couple bucks less, however they will not be mandating the vaccine on its workers, ever.” 

Calvin is unaware of how many employees actually are vaccinated at Hooksett. “Something isn’t adding up,” Calvin said. “And the government is just remaining quiet on the matter except for how it continues to force the experimental vaccine on its people. Many of us wonder if our president and his regime are receiving kickbacks from Pfizer for every shot administered.” 

To be sure, the incestuous relationship between the FDA and Big Pharma transcends parties. Former FDA director Dr. Scott Gottlieb, appointed by President Trump, now sits on the board of Pfizer and is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. Yet Gottlieb in September agreed that the Biden Administration had made vaccines “overtly political” by issuing mandates. 

Asked whether the vaccine mandates revealed class divisions between blue- and white-collar employees, Calvin saw a more mixed reality: “As manual labor workers and skilled machinists we can afford to fight the good fight because we know that finding experienced workers is hard to come by. Our office workers are a dime a dozen and in the years I’ve been employed at Hooksett, I can tell you they have a very high turnover rate. Management has been jumbled around between both buildings quite a bit these last two years. Though many of the ones I have talked to share and support our fight they won’t openly say anything in fear of being replaced.”

Cavalry On the Way?

When the first GE employees began issuing a clarion call to organize in October, it was a tall order to challenge the blue chip conglomerate with over 200,000 employees. In the context of each work site and division needing highly skilled and specialized workforces, however, it may be that the protesters have an unsung advantage. 

One GE Aviation worksite at Strother Field in Arkansas City, Kansas is in a county of barely 30,000 residents and is a 45-minute commute from Wichita, the nearest medium-size city. Relocating or replacing this workforce would be almost impossible in the short term. 

Another problem that has loomed large is the murky rollout of the mandate by the Biden Administration. Until recently, the White House had publicly wavered over whether a federal mandate on private businesses was even legal. Yet in September, White House COVID-19 response coordinator Jeff Zients explained the administration’s 180 degree turn on mandates, claiming, “I think the delta variant has proven to be more transmissible and more contagious.” Zients said the situation justified the mandate whether or not it was legal or constitutional. 

But rather than bury COVID, the mandates have given a rise to a new wave of resistance, no longer composed of workers alone. During an October protest in Waukesha, Wisconsin, GOP gubernatorial candidate Jonathan Wichmann attended in solidarity.

I asked Wichmann about his involvement in a local protest against the policy of one of America’s largest and most storied corporations and the largest employer in Waukesha. 

“I believe my stance against the unconstitutional mandates protects all people’s right to earn a living and defends our supply chain,” Wichmann told me. “I was warning months ago that if we don’t unwind the unnecessary fear surrounding COVID-19 then we run the risk of collapsing the supply chain and local economy.” 

During the 2022 election, should he be nominated, Wichmann would face incumbent Tony Evers, who is taking a cautious approach to vaccine mandates despite being a Democrat. But Evers also has not called upon the state attorney general to oppose the federal rules. 

“I would not impose any mandates,” Wichmann said. “It is the responsibility of each individual to protect their health in the way that best suits their needs.”

Wichmann noted that some middle-of-the-road Democrats disagreed with the mandates. It is here that Democratic incumbents could be playing a dangerous game, even those taking a more passive approach like Evers. Should the mandates be upheld by the courts and enforced against unvaccinated employees, those elected officials would face voters who may hold them responsible for their firing.

Is the Gavel Mightier Than the Pen?

Not surprisingly many GE employees are beginning to explore litigation as an option to fight back against the vaccine mandate. 

Different circumstances may complicate efforts to organize a common legal fight, such as whether the worker has filed a medical or religious exemption. But they would be joining other previous efforts to overturn the mandate in the courts. 

Attorney Ronald Berutti is already deeply involved in lawsuits by business owners and individuals against New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio. “We are arguing . . . that vaccine mandates are illegal in that they violate federal enabling legislation for Emergency Use Authority vaccines. Such an argument applies across the board,” Berutti said.

While his clients are waging a tough battle in New York—part of the liberal-leaning Second U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals—relief may come from a different source. On the recent Fifth Circuit decision to stay the vaccine mandate, Berutti said, “presumably, the Fifth Circuit believes that the plaintiffs demonstrated a likelihood of success on the merits. Hopefully, it will present the first big blow to mandates nationwide, and will be the start of the worm turning on court cases related to mandates, generally.”

President Barack Obama once quipped that he had a pen and phone in order to highlight the power his office had to issue executive orders. Now his successor, Biden, has taken this statement to a new extreme by claiming that his power extends to coming between workers and their jobs as a means of promoting public health. Whatever the endgame of this national crisis, it may already permanently have ruptured the ability of this administration to find support from real workers on labor issues. And therefore, Biden ironically may be giving new meaning to a quote by GE’s original founder Thomas Edison: “Hell, there are no rules here—we’re trying to accomplish something.”

About Anonymous

Anonymous is a writer who works in the medical device industry.

Photo: GE CEO Larry Culp, Nov. 5, 2019. John Tlumacki/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

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