Thursday, September 23, 2010
GE Aviation Shutdown Puts End to 'Best Jobs'
By Elaine D. Briseño
Journal Staff Writer
General Electric on Friday will forever shut the doors on its South Valley aviation plant, putting an end to "the best job in the state of New Mexico," according to longtime employees.
Steve Aragon, a machinist at the plant for 26 years, said although the plant has expanded and shrunk throughout the years, it managed to stay open, providing a good living for hundreds of New Mexicans. Aragon is an official with the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers Local 794 and said employees never expected the plant to close.
"We were more in shock than anything," he said. "There had been downturns in the business before and layoffs. When they told us they had to talk to us we thought that's what they would announce, more layoffs."
Instead, during the July 2009 meeting, the company informed the employees that it would close its doors in the fall of this year. When the announcement was made, GE Aviation spokesman Robert Kennedy blamed the closing on the recession, saying the company was seeing "double digit reduction in engine production."
The 700,000-square-foot plant is located on 33 acres at 336 Woodward SE just west of Broadway and had been manufacturing components for commercial and military jet engines since the late 1960s. The job force there has been as high as 2,000 in the 1980s and as low as 400 when the closure was announced, according to GE Aviation spokeswoman Deb Case.
"It's the best job in the state of New Mexico," Aragon said. "It had good benefits, good wages and was not exceptionally physical."
Aragon said the proof is in the company's older work force. Aragon said employees on average made between $28 to $35 an hour and worked as machinists, tool makers and electrical or mechanical maintenance operators. And, he said, once people were hired, they rarely left and even recruited family members to come work for the company.
Elizabeth Brill-Saiz's husband, Joseph Saiz, encouraged her to apply at the plant almost seven years ago. Brill-Saiz said she was working at a nonunion manufacturing plant in the area and was making only $14 an hour after 16 years.
"He told me about GE, the union there and how we would have a voice and it was a good place to work," she said. "I walked into GE making over $20 an hour."
Brill-Saiz did not qualify for early retirement because she was too young and did not have enough years there, but was offered a severance package and $12,500 for school. She is using that money to become a paralegal.
Joseph Saiz moved to New Mexico in 1979 and started working at the GE casting shop that was across the street from the current plant. That building was closed and demolished in the late '80s or early '90s, Case said. After that, Saiz said he was moved to the current plant.
He retired last year because of heart problems and fear that the company was going to go through another round of layoffs. He said GE sent someone from headquarters three years ago to tell employees the plant would have less work.
"I saw the writing on the wall," he said. "They were offering incentives to retire, so I did."