For those who have contracted the COVID-19 virus and become ill, access to a ventilator and other personal protective equipment (PPE)—masks, gloves and hospital gowns—can mean the difference between life and death. This equipment is vitally needed to treat and prevent the spread of the disease.
The disease is relatively mild in about 80 percent of cases, according to the World Health Organization. But for others, it can turn serious and even deadly. The virus can enter the lungs and start to replicate, destroying the cells.
The immune system’s natural response of attacking those cells can cause more damage, leading to pneumonia. If patients are not able to fully breath on their own, a ventilator provides lung function to get oxygen for the brain.
As COVID-19 began to spread around the world and doctors and scientists learned how the virus attacks pulmonary function, the immediate need for more ventilators became apparent. The good news is Machinists Union members of Badger Lodge 1406, working at General Electric Datex-Ohmeda in Madison, WI, build anesthesia, respiratory and infant care machines.
Trevar Smedal has worked at GE for two-and-a-half years. He quickly realized his fellow Badger Lodge members had to step up to the plate in the upcoming months.
“As soon as it hit Italy and the country was devastated, you knew it was going to hit us and hit us hard,” said Smedal. “We make some of the best ventilators in the world, so we knew production was going to be crazy.”
Smedal has worked as many as 76 hours in one week as the plant tries to double its production numbers.
“I have been doing my part,” said Smedal. “I work as many hours as they need, because there’s work to be done.”
GE needed to ramp up production to three full shifts. It’s something Shop Committee member Paul Thruman thought he would never see.
“There’s never been a third shift in the 15 years I’ve worked at GE,” said Thruman.
Bringing production up to scale isn’t something done easily or quickly, especially with a product as sophisticated and vital as a ventilator.
There are barriers to scaling production as rapidly as GE–and the world–needs. Hiring the needed skilled and quality employees—and lots of them—isn’t a speedy process either.
This is where the members of Local 1406 really stepped up and put others before themselves.
The contract at GE was set to expire on June 15, 2020. The bargaining committee at Local 1406 was excited to get to the negotiating table with their employer for the opportunity to improve pay, benefits and working conditions at the plant.
In early March, the bargaining committee, along with District 10 Business Representative Joe Terlisner, traveled to the William W. Winpisinger Education and Technology Center in Hollywood, Md., to attend the negotiation prep program. Here they would finalize their bargaining strategy to get the best contract for their members.
“GE reached out that week and stated there were some emergency concerns based on productivity and the necessity of ventilators due to the COVID-19 crisis,” said Terlisner. “They wanted to produce as many ventilators as quickly as they could and couldn’t do it through the regular process under the current collective bargaining agreement.”
The bargaining committee met with GE the Monday after returning from Maryland. By Thursday, a one-year contract was ratified.
“On Monday, the union proposed a one-year agreement that protects its members and rewards them for the advanced and lifesaving work they do every day,” said District 10 Directing Business Representative Alex Hoekstra. “On Thursday, members of the IAM overwhelmingly voted to accept that contract.”
“I’m very proud of that membership,” said Terlisner. “Even though most were looking for a longer three-plus-year agreement, they stepped up to the plate and accepted the one-year deal.”
Knowing their plant absolutely could not shut down, membership safety was of the upmost importance. If they weren’t healthy, they couldn’t make the life-saving equipment.
“The number 1 issue for the committee was the safety of the membership,” said Terlisner. “So, they negotiated safety measures, such as separating break times so there are fewer people. If an employee tests positive for COVID-19 or is subject to a mandated quarantine, they receive full pay for two weeks. This ensures people don’t feel obligated to come to work sick.”
Also included in that contract–a provision to temporarily allow salaried employees to work alongside union members on the shop floor. GE needed them to help ramp up production until they could hire and train enough union workers.
Unions all across North America have seen jobs chipped away, little by little, by the companies for which they work, so committees fight hard to protect bargaining unit work every time they get to the negotiating table.
“Nobody wants to agree to let salary do your job, but we had to look at what’s happening in the world,” said Misty Altenberger, a 19-year member who has worked on the ventilator line for more than a year. “We had to do what’s right for the world and if that meant having salary employees working beside us for a little bit, that’s what we would do.”
As the entire world faces COVID-19, the members of IAM Local 1406 put the needs of others before their own. They hope that is remembered when things return to normal.
“We did what was needed to make sure we got the machines out to help save lives,” said Altenberger. “Don’t forget what we gave up and sacrificed to do that.”
“Hopefully, we can get back to the table next June and get a long-term deal that everyone is happy with, knowing we did an amazing thing a year prior,” added Thruman.
VENTILATORS OUT THE DOOR
Before the pandemic, around 350 union members worked at the plant. To reach the production levels needed to meet demand during this crisis, GE is hiring nearly 300 more.
The members take great pride in their work and the life-saving products they make.
“We make one of the best ventilators in the world,” said Smedal. “It means a lot that Local 1406 members make them right here in Madison, Wis.”
“We are making the ventilators the entire world needs right now,” said Altenberger. “I never thought that I would have a job that makes such a difference in this world. I’m very proud to be doing it.”
Many of the new employees are excited to help and be a part of history.
“For me, that energy puts things into perspective,” said Smedal. “I build these machines day in and day out, so it’s not something new for me. I’m just showing up and doing my job every day.”
New employees on the product line mean lots of adjustments and training.
“We have to get a good product out, so I take training very seriously,” said Smedal. “We take pride in our work and want to make sure quality is our top priority.”
With demand for the product and the ramp-up of production comes the frantic pace of the workforce.
“There’s volunteers and new employees; we are constantly training,” said Altenberger. “We are running the plant 24/7, trying to get as much out the door as we can. It’s a lot of controlled chaos right now.”
In true Machinists Union fashion, members are stepping up in a time of crisis. It’s what union members do.
“It’s brought a lot of our union sisters and brothers closer together,” said Altenberger. “We have people from other areas of the plant who have volunteered to come work on the ventilator line just so they can help out. We have brothers and sisters stepping up to work the long hours and help be apart of history.”
UNION MACHINISTS SAVE LIVES
This isn’t just a story about a union workforce working more hours and ramping up production. These members sacrificed their contract language and their family time to help others. They understand that desperate times call for desperate measures. The world needs more ventilators to save as many lives as possible, and the Machinists Union members of Badger Lodge 1406 stepped up and did just that.
“It’s safe to say the members of IAM Local 1406 saved lives by agreeing to this contract extension and the language that went with it,” said IAM Midwest Territory General Vice President Steve Galloway. “Without it, there would have been far fewer ventilators at a time when the nation and world needs them most. That’s what unions do—work for the greater good of all people, not just themselves.”
You could call them working-class heroes, even though most are too humble to use that term.
“We don’t consider ourselves heroes, but we do know what we are doing right now is important,” said Altenberger. “I’m glad, and it feels great to be able to give back in this way.”
See how members of IAM Local 1406 in Madison, WI are all stepping up and working to produce as many life-saving ventilators as possible to fill the need worldwide.