Lucille Trembly, a subassembly worker at the General Electric Company television plant here, wanted to know what would happen to the plant and her job if a recession comes this year. So she raised her hand and asked Fred Wellner, the general manager.
Wellner noted that GE has picked up the bulk of general manager.
Wellner noted that GE has picked i
Wellner noted that GE has picked up the bulk of Admiral TV's contract to supply color television sets to Montgomery Ward stores. The extra production will boost activity at the plant regardless of a downturn, he said.
Peering into the 1980s, Wellner was similarly sanguine. "Ours is a tough business, but we have done reasonably well in the last few years and we should continue to do well," he said in a thick German accent.
Other hands were raised. Wellner was holding a "press conference" for selected plant employees, and the 20 who attended had questions. He fielded them from a podium, against a backdrop of a couple of dozen GE television sets.
Followup questioning was rare, but a member of employes eventually got opportunity. Wellner meanwhile, was lighting up one cigarette after another.
GE started holding press conference for employes this year, marking another step in its continuing effort to improve communications with the rank and file and to promote company harmony.
"This gives employes an opportunity to shoot questions at me point-blank without going through a lot of steps to see me," Wellner said after the hour-long session. "It tells them that the general manager is accessible, and that's the way it should be."
In an age in which workers increasingly disdain autocratic working conditions seek more individualized attention and demand more feedback from management, the GE plant here appears to be in the vanguard in creating the workplace of the future.
"We probably do more listening to employes in this plant than any other plant I know," said Don Campbell, GE's manager of community relations. "That's probably the secret to our success."
The plant offer a full-time counseling service and a roundtable program in which managers continually meet with workers to keep them aware of developments in their departments. There is a weekly newspaper called "TV News" and a suggestion program, crapped by a weekly luncheon for those whose suggestions have been approved.
The plant also has about a half-dozen employe "task forces," each headed by a member of the company's employe relations staff, which meet monthly and work on a number of employe-oriented projects. One task force is studying ways to improve the readability of the plant's benefit booklets, and another is planning and coordinating plant visits by community leaders.
Moreover, plant officials make sure there is an ongoing stream of special events to keep morale high. When the plant celebrated its 13th anniversary last February, each employe got a carnation and a recipe book containing several hundred of his or her fellow workers' favorite concoctions.
"About 70 percent of our employes are women, so we have a lot of good cooks," a plant official explained.
GE's counseling program is the most comprehensive of the company's employe relationss tools. It started when the plant was opened, but it may be garnering more attention now than ever. Campbell said that several new manufacturing arrivals in Tidewater, including Volvo, Moulinex and Mercedes Bens, have asked GE about the program with an eye toward setting up their own.
The program give employe someone to go air problems and grievancess, essentially serving the same role as a shop steward in a union plant. Employes are encouraged to talk to their foremen first, but they don't have to, especially if a foreman is the source of the problem.
Employes who aren't satisfied with the results eventually can work their way through channels to a session with Wellner.
There are two counselors. One is a man and one e woman, and both are former foremen. The head of the program, Ron Lass, was previously an employe relations supervisor at unionized GE plants.
"We feel that the success or our business relates directly to how successfully our employes can work here," Lass said. "Everybody has problems of one sort or another on the job. If we can resolve them, it's healthy for our employes and our business."
By helping to keep employes happy, the program also keeps the GE plant nonunion. GE is the only domestic TV manufacturer that still produces all of its televisions in the United States,and Campbell said that's partly because it hasn't been plagued by costly union strikes.
Together, Lass said his two counselors schedule about 200 employe interviews a month, and probably see an equal number who drop by their office informally. CAPTION: Picture, Fred Wellner runs a "press conference" at GE's Suffolk plant. By S.H. Ringo for The Washington Post