The Fight to Save Jobs at the Ohio Light Bulb Factory that Supplies Walmart Continues

By Elizabeth Brotherton-Bunch
Mar 23 2021 |
The interior of a Walmart location in Portland, Ore. Getty Images

Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) on Friday sent a letter to Savant CEO Robert Madonna to request a meeting about why production was sent overseas.

Earlier this month, we wrote about the GE-Savant light bulb factory in Bucyrus, Ohio.

That factory, which has been in business for more than 60 years, had produced A-19 LED light bulbs for retail mammoth Walmart. But on March 6, factory owner GE-Savant officially shut down production of the bulbs, leading to the loss of 81 jobs. The bulbs are now being made in China.

It’s always a travesty when a massive corporation like GE-Savant (which formed after a 2020 merger between GE Lighting and Savant Systems) moves production overseas. What makes this decision especially rich is that it comes at a time when Walmart is undertaking another flashy media campaign to convince everyone it cares about Made in USA.

But folks in Ohio aren’t giving up on the LED plant.

Local representatives in Bucyrus recently held a virtual meeting with Walmart officials to urge the company to use its influence to encourage GE-Savant to restart production. According to Bucyrus Mayor Jeff Reser, Walmart indicated it is “willing to work” with GE-Savant to keep local production going.

For its part, GE-Savant is maintaining that keeping production in Ohio is “unsustainable,” with GE Lighting spokesperson Ben Sabol saying that the “decision to eliminate recently created jobs was not a decision we came to quickly or took lightly.”

Sabol also said that many of the 81 employees found new jobs before the production line closed; 46 were officially laid off.

Still, the company’s decision hasn’t gone unnoticed on Capitol Hill.

On Friday, Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) wrote to Savant CEO Robert Madonna to ask him for a meeting “to discuss how to resume and grow production in Bucyrus.” It’s actually the second time Brown has written Madonna to try to find out why GE-Savant decided to offshore production; he previously wrote the CEO back in January.

In this latest letter, Brown tells Madonna that he’s “engaged with workers at your plant, the mayor of Bucyrus, Walmart’s CEO, and the Biden Administration about both short- and long-term steps we can take to restart production.”

So far, however, GE-Savant has refused to join discussions. Brown writes:

“This decision, by all reports, to shift production to factories in China is a short-sighted decision that fails to recognize the productivity of Bucyrus’s workforce and the opportunities provided by our nation’s commitment to increasing investment in domestic manufacturing… I am particularly concerned as I believe that there is strong potential for sales of Made In USA green bulbs to both government agencies and the American public.”

In the letter, Brown poses a number of questions for Madonna, including what led to the decision to end production in Ohio and whether production would benefit from purchases from the Biden administration’s recent executive orders on Buy America, green energy, and the domestic supply chain.

Brown also writes that while GE-Savant has maintained it shut down production because “Walmart refused to pay enough for the A 19 Bulb to allow you to make a profit,” the retailer “told the mayor of Bucyrus two weeks ago that was not the case and GE Lighting never asked for a better price.”

Brown continues: “Which report is accurate?”

The senator also brought up the Bucyrus plant during a Senate Finance Committee meeting last week that examined the impact of the tax code on domestic manufacturing. Brown asked United Steelworkers member Donnie Blatt about the impact of job losses like this – and Blatt noted that the pressure goes beyond the 81 jobs already lost.

While the Bucyrus workers are represented by the IUE-CWA Local 84704, the United Steelworkers just wrapped up a contact negotiation with Savant at a factory in nearby Logan, Ohio. The Logan workers make glass casings for the LED lights that were being made in Bucyrus.

“What are they going to do with these glass cases that they are making?” Blatt said. “That puts pressure not only on the company to find someplace to put their product, but also puts pressure on the workers to know whether they’re going to have a job or not, which then puts pressure on the communities to wonder if those jobs are going to be available for workers now or workers in the future… that will now put pressure now to maybe lose that facility in Logan, Ohio as well.”

Brown gave Madonna until March 30 to answer his questions and contact his office to arrange a meeting.

Look, there’s no question that GE-Savant should rethink its decision to offshore this LED production. But Walmart should make good on the promise it made to Bucyrus officials and seize the opportunity to use its power for good.

As Brown pointed out in his letter, there was considerable fanfare when GE originally announced back in 2013 that it would make the bulbs for 3,400 Walmart locations. The retail giant knows Made in USA is good for its image, which is why it continues to go back to the same patriotic P.R. campaign, year after year.

Now imagine if Walmart put its money where its mouth is and told GE-Savant that it wants to buy light bulbs made in Ohio, not China.

Walmart has thousands of locations. GE-Savant wants to keep selling its products at those locations. If Walmart exerted the same kind of pressure on GE-Savant to keep production local that it did for decades pressuring suppliers to offshore production, you gotta think GE-Savant is going to rethink its plans.

We’ll keep an eye on this story as it moves ahead, including whether Madonna responds to Brown’s list of questions. In the meantime, you can offer your support to the people who lost their jobs by signing this petition.