WINCHESTER, VA.– On Thursday night — sometime around 8 o'clock — 130 years after Thomas Edison commercialized the incandescent light bulb, Dwayne Madigan helped make the last such bulb Edison's company, General Electric, would make in the United States.
Madigan spent the rest of his shift at the Winchester Lamp Plant emptying chemicals out of machines and helping clean up the shop. By Friday, Madigan and all 200 plant employees were out of work. Those who would talk to a reporter on Thursday all had someone to blame.
Dave Rusk, retiring against his will, told me his job disappeared thanks to “a push from Congress.” The 2007 energy bill included minimum efficiency standards for light bulbs – standards that the bulbs made in Winchester can't meet.
For now, compact fluorescents – the double-helix shaped bulbs that sell for $2 for a 100-watt equivalent – are the stand-in. GE Lighting spokeswoman Janice Fraser says light-emitting diode bulbs will be the true long-term replacement: most of GE Lighting's research and development goes into LEDs.
“When you see the enormous savings that can be achieved by more efficient lighting … it's huge,” said Fraser. But if the energy savings are big enough, and if the lifespan of the high-tech bulbs is as long as they say, then why should it take regulation to get people to buy them?
GE supported the regulations. Many Winchester workers, noting that the CFLs are made in China by lower-wage workers, say GE wanted to force the higher profit-margin bulbs on consumers, and Winchester is collateral damage.
Rusk holds this against GE and “the Democratic Congress” that passed the bill. “To me, it's actually another freedom taken away from Americans,” he told me from his pickup truck as he left his final full shift Thursday. “Actually outlawing this lamp by 2014. … You're losing a choice there. I think that bothers me more than anything. I should be able to buy whatever I want.”
Everybody has different explanations of GE's lobbying on the rules. Fraser told me that GE had opposed early regulations that would have totally banned incandescent technology, but supported the efficiency standards as less bad. “As long as you know that the legislation is coming one way or another,” she said, “you want to influence it in a way that makes sense for your customers and your business.”
Teresa Golightly, after working her last shift Thursday, said GE CEO Jeff Immelt supported the rules to cozy up with politicians: “He got on Obama's economic team. I feel like we were sold out.”
Like Rusk and Golightly, GE management in a press release last year blamed the factory's closing on “a variety of energy regulations that establish lighting efficiency standards” that will “make the familiar lighting products produced at the Winchester Plant obsolete.”
But one worker, who went out of his way to talk to me, said the regulations are just a “scapegoat.” GE wanted to send their jobs to Mexico, and the regulations provide political cover.
Indeed, the regulations allow GE to manufacture light bulbs for sale in the United States until 2014 for lower wattages (2012 for 100-watt bulbs). Then there are the growing markets in India and China, where more people have electricity every day, and where no such regulations exist. So GE is still making traditional incandescents — but in Monterrey, Mexico, instead of Winchester. “We look at our business as a global business,” Fraser explained. “We make things where it is more efficient.”
For Cecil Affleck, who also retired against his will Friday, this is the problem. Affleck watched a recent economic presentation in which Immelt touted exports as the key to U.S. economic recovery. “He said that his answer to economic recovery was exporting products. The only thing he's exporting is jobs — and they're going to Mexico.”
So free trade is another culprit: making bulbs in China and Mexico is cheaper. It makes economic sense for GE, but it leaves the workers — whose wages were nearly $30 an hour — in a bad spot. “I'm an uneducated middle-class guy,” Affleck told me. “It's gonna be hard.”
Madigan, Rusk, Affleck, and Golightly feel like politicians and businessmen have abused them. They and their colleagues are a reminder that politics has human costs.
Timothy P.Carney, The Examiner's senior political columnist, can be contacted at email@example.com. His column appears Monday and Thursday, and his stories and blog posts appear on ExaminerPolitics.com.