WAUKESHA — General Electric plans to close a plant in Waukesha and move its 300-plus jobs to Canada. Workers at the plant are angry, and they’re accusing President Donald Trump and House Speaker Paul Ryan of failing them, but GE officials say another factor is to blame.
“I came to work on a Monday — never in my wildest dreams thinking that one of the big upper echelon people/person would come and tell us that ‘you’re fired and we’re moving to Canada,'” Jeff Neibauer said.
Neibauer has built Waukesha engines at the same plant for 24 years. In 2014, President Barack Obama praised the GE factory as a symbol of American manufacturing.
“What you’re doing at this plant and across this region can be a model for the country,” President Obama said in 2014.
It was a model that didn’t last. Nearly two years later, Neibauer and more than 300 other workers were told their jobs were moving to Canada.
“They cut one piece of your heart at a time. They move jobs out. They move equipment out,” Neibauer said.
The factory drove the community’s economy for more than 100 years. It sits just outside Paul Ryan’s congressional district, but some workers say he failed them.
“Doesn’t he realize that we voted for him? He should have been there and saw my wife crying. He should have been there,” Kenneth Olsen said.
GE officials blame the move to Canada on the Export-Import Bank. It is essentially a government credit agency used to finance U.S. exports. GE officials say they rely on that financing to help sell their products abroad.
Speaker Ryan has slammed the Export-Import Bank as “corporate welfare,” and Congress let its charter expire in June of 2015.
Canada saw an opportunity, offering GE financing if it would build a factory there. GE took the deal, and by the time Congress reauthorized the bank five months later, it was too late.
A spokesperson for Paul Ryan said the speaker finds GE’s decision deeply disappointing, and said the company’s Export-Import Bank reasoning “doesn’t match up.” But GE officials said if the bank had been reauthorized in those five months, the workers would still have their jobs.
GE’s employees aren’t buying it.
“I don’t know if you want to call it corporate greed,” Joe Acker said.
“A company the size of GE shouldn’t need that kind of financial help,” John Kopplin said.
President Trump’s promise to bring manufacturing jobs back to the U.S. helped him win Wisconsin.
“This was actually the first time I ever voted. He was saying the things that the average person wants to see more decent paying jobs that somebody can support a family on,” Bret Mattice said.
The workers even wrote a letter to President Trump after his victory, hoping he would save their jobs.
“I don’t believe there’s hope for our plant. My hope is, companies like that, that offshore all the work, I hope he follows through on his 35% tax and punishes those businesses,” Joe Barlow said.
Wisconsin’s unemployment rate is below the national average, and manufacturers in Waukesha are hiring, but the workers say those jobs don’t pay nearly as much as the union jobs at GE.
“To find a job with the kind of money we make now is gonna be pretty impossible,” Acker said.
“You can’t support a family on $17 an hour,” a worker said.
Even as they search for new jobs, their anger is raw.
“I don’t own anything GE anymore. I don’t even have a GE light bulb in my house anymore,” Barlow said.