Wisconsin GE Plant Praised by Obama is About to Shut Down and Send Jobs to Canada

Jim Flemming, the manager at General Electric's Waukesha plant, which is being shut down. (Credit: Sara Stathas for The New York Times)
Jim Flemming, the manager at General Electric’s Waukesha plant, which is being shut down. (Credit: Sara Stathas for The New York Times)

When President Obama visited General Electric’s sprawling, red brick engine factory here in January 2014, he praised it as a sign that manufacturing in America could have a promising future. “We’re here because you’re doing some really good stuff,” Mr. Obama said. Plants like this, he declared, “can be a model for the country.”

On the morning of Sept. 28, however, the Waukesha plant manager gathered the workers on the floor and told them the factory would be shut down. G.E., he said, had decided to shift production of the industrial engines — and the workers’ jobs — to Canada.

What happened in less than two years to change things so much? The answer is a blend of Washington politics, fast-changing markets and corporate self-interest. At the center is a politically charged dispute over a usually obscure agency, the Export-Import Bank.

That dispute reaches a turning point on Monday, when supporters from both parties of the now shuttered federal agency will force a vote in the House of Representatives to reopen it — the culmination of a monthslong revolt against some of the most powerful Republicans in Congress, who want the bank dead.

The Waukesha factory workers feel that their jobs are being lost to forces beyond their control. “We’re the hostages in this fight,” said Scott Schmidt, 43, a machinist and 20-year employee.

When the workers assembled last month, they were told the Waukesha factory was being shut down because Congress had failed to fund the Export-Import Bank, which plays a small but often crucial role in America’s export trade.

Conservative Republicans have singled out the bank as a symbol of “corporate welfare,” saying it hands out generous subsidies, especially to big companies like G.E. This year, House Republicans blocked a vote to renew funding for the bank.

But corporate reaction, particularly G.E.’s Waukesha shutdown, has prompted some House Republicans to reconsider, fearing the perception they are sacrificing American jobs for the sake of ideology.

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The New York Times