Erie to GE: "I love you more"

Posted by Steve Sweeney
on Wednesday, July 03, 2013

Erie, Pa., locals thought GE loved them as much as they love it. Or did, until last week.

To me, Erie is the closest “big” city to where I was raised, about an hour east in foothills of the Allegheny Mountains in New York State. For the five years I spent living and working as an adult in Erie, it had quality colleges, inspired physicians, and an amusement park that still entertains. And, for course, there was GE.

GE Transportation’s June 28 announcement that fully 1,050 workers would be permanently laid-off floored me, as I am sure it shocked thousands in that Great Lakes town and for families for 50 miles around who thrive on jobs at the suburban plant or because of it.

My sense is that because GE has been part of Erie since 1910, locals have come to expect the vastness and importance of the global company and its products to be a bulwark against time and tide. The company did little to suspend that belief when it created its own company town and sponsored a separate municipality, Lawrence Park Township, where all “Erie-built” locomotives have been made since 1911.

In different eras, Erie had been a naval base and fishing center; a port connecting factories and railroads with Great Lakes commerce; and a manufacturing hub churning out railroad cranes, finished steel products, paper, and surgical equipment. When any of those failed in the 20th century, GE stood by as an employer that was big enough to take any worker with enough skills and talent to do well. Even through the Great Depression and later rocky times of the 1980s and early 1990s, when GE “downsized,” employment seemed to rebound with the economy and locomotive orders.

It was a nice thought that Erie and GE would always be together, although GE’s archrival in the locomotive markets, EMD, shifted production to two different cities since the 1980s. And then in 2011, GE Transportation announced plans to build a factory in Fort Worth, Texas. Company leadership followed that with a plan to move its global corporate headquarters from Erie to Chicago. Suddenly, it was possible that GE could abandon its city for a reason other than utter economic collapse. Local leaders assuaged fears that GE would close the Erie plant because of their century-long association and a history of tens-of-millions of dollars donated by GE and its employees to local charities and school districts.

Oh, Erie.

There’s pain for employees losing their jobs, yes. But the greater injury is in Erie hearts. For whatever reason, their emotions were mismatched. Despite gripes or complaints about the company, Erie locals depended on GE to put food on the table and keep the lights on. If it wasn’t clear before, the layoffs made it plain, GE still loves Erie, but wants to be free to date other cities.

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