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Group Escalates General Electric Boycott

ROB WELLSJune 13, 1991

NEW YORK (AP) _ After years of unsuccessfully prodding the General Electric Co. to abandon its nuclear weapons business, an activist group escalated the campaign with a slick video documentary challenging GE’s claim that it brings ″good things to life.″

The campaign - boosted by television and radio advertisements, media screenings and a strategy to reach 50 million people - illustrates the growing sophistication of activists pushing so-called corporate responsibility issues.

″That’s our number one priority strategy is to decrease GE’s image,″ Nancy Cole, executive director of Infact, said Wednesday. The Boston-based group is urging a halt of nuclear weapons production.

The campaign’s centerpiece is a 30-minute video documentary titled ″Deadly Deception: General Electric, Nuclear Weapons & Our Environment.″

The video contains interviews with residents near the contaminated Hanford Nuclear Reservation in eastern Washington, which GE operated for 19 years until 1965. Also interviewed are former workers at the Knolls Atomic Power Laboratory in upper New York State.

GE spokesman Ford C. Slater described the video as ″a rehashing of a story they have tried to tell before.″

″Infact has made many erroneous allegations about GE and we have no interest in debating them on an allegation by allegation basis,″ said Slater.

In the video, GE is accused of excessively polluting the environment through release of radioactive waste and covering up worker safety information. The interviews are juxtaposed with snippets from GE’s upbeat television advertisements designed to portray the industrial giant as a sensitive and caring corporate citizen.

Cole said the video is designed to change the public’s perception of GE, and show ″there’s another very powerful, darker side to this company.″

″You’re not going to think about lightbulbs and refrigerators and medical equipment, you’re going to think about nuclear weapons ... cancer and birth defects,″ said Cole.

The video was produced by Debra Chasnoff, who also produced ″Choosing Children,″ a documentary about families and lesbian parenting and ″Growing Old,″ a film about women’s experiences of aging.

Slater disputed Infact claims that its 6-year-old boycott has pressured GE to cancel a contract to make neutron ″triggers″ for nuclear bombs and forced the corporation to quadruple spending on image advertising.

The GE spokesman declined to provide specific information on the company’s advertising budget. But he quoted figures in the industry publication Advertising Age that indicated GE’s annual ad spending declined $22 million between 1986 and 1989.

Infact is using the video to propel its boycott of GE, which now focuses on hospital purchases of GE’s advanced medical technology.

The group, based in Boston, is the outgrowth of an activist campaign that resulted in a successful boycott of Nestle Foods Corp. over its promotion of infant formula in Third World countries.

Cole said that in the past year, the GE boycott has caused the company to lose more than $30 million in sales of hi-tech medical equipment to competitors.

Slater said since the boycott began in 1985, GE’s revenues increased 79 percent to $58 billion and its share in the medical diagnostic imaging equipment has increased during the same period.

″The boycott has had no significant effect whatsoever,″ he said.

GE, based in Fairfield, Conn., makes products ranging from dishwashers to jet engines to high-tech medical gear. The company also owns the NBC television network and a controlling interest in Kidder Peabody Group Inc., a large Wall Street investment firm.

According to a list compiled by Fortune Magazine, General Electric received $5.77 billion in defense-related contracts in 1989, making it the nation’s third-largest defense contractor. Those figures, the most recent available, did not specify GE’s nuclear weapons contracts.

Slater said GE’s only involvement in the U.S. nuclear weapons program ″as the government has defined it″ is $9 million in revenue at a weapons facility in Pinellas County, Fla.

Infact takes a broader view, saying it considers GE’s nuclear weapons program to encompass weapons delivery and transportation systems. Cole said GE, while not the nation’s largest nuclear weapons maker, is considered a leader.

She said if GE scuttled its nuclear weapons business, the company would send a clear signal to other corporations that the nuclear arms business is no longer desirable.

Asked about envrionmental health and worker safety allegations at the Knolls Atomic Lab, Slater said a review by the General Accounting Office - the investigative arm of Congress - uncovered no significant deficiencies.

Infact also accused GE of careless handling and monitoring of radioactive materials and asbestos, a cancer-causing fiber.

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