As a senior operations manager at the General Dynamics plant in Taunton, Laura Miola oversees the company’s project making communications systems for US soldiers. But for the last week, she has been doubling as a personal counselor to colleagues upset by the Pentagon’s request to cut $334 million from their contract this year, threatening hundreds of jobs.
“Everyone is running into my office saying, ‘What does this mean?’ And we have no answers,” Miola said. “It feels helpless.”
That feeling of helplessness is likely to linger as Congress mulls whether to approve the Pentagon’s request to shift money from the Taunton contract and other defense projects to cover cost overruns elsewhere in its budget, and to fund new programs it says are urgent. The $7.9 billion in so-called reprogramming needs to be approved by four congressional committees, a process officials said is likely to take weeks.
The proposed reduction comes at a time when Taunton has been aggressively trying to reduce stubbornly high unemployment by promoting business opportunities, including landing one of the new casinos authorized in Massachusetts and expanding the industrial park where General Dynamics is located. But like many other small, old, industrial cities in New England, it has never fully recovered from the loss of its manufacturing base, in this case, silversmithing. The downtown remains dotted with empty storefronts, the median income is below the norm for the state, and 12.1 percent of its residents live below the poverty line.
The proposed cut to the General Dynamics contract has drawn objections from Massachusetts politicians, including US Senators Scott Brown and John Kerry. In a letter to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta last week, Kerry, a Democrat, asked that the cut be canceled, arguing it “could make it impossible for the program to maintain the brain power and supply lines necessary for research to be completed in a timely manner.”
General Dynamics has a $5 billion contract to make an advanced data communications network for use by ground troops while on the move, with the system scheduled to be fully deployed by 2018. The proposed cut would affect only a portion of this year’s funding, and the contract is supposed to receive its regular appropriations next year.
But company officials fear that if Congress approves the cut, they would have to lay off hundreds of workers for the interim, and then have trouble rehiring them once funding resumes. Officials also worry the contract would be vulnerable to future budget cuts that have been mandated by Congress.
Workers at the plant said they can’t fathom why the communications project, which performed well in Pentagon tests this spring, would be on the chopping block. The company has called it a key part of the military’s effort to modernize communications for ground forces.
“I don’t think they [Pentagon planners] really understand the benefit the soldier on the ground is getting,” said David Maloney, who has worked at the Taunton plant for 25 years. “When soldiers come to train, we really seek out their feedback, and it’s extremely positive.”
The system, which is called Warfighter Information Network-Tactical, or WIN-T, allows soldiers and commanders in mobile units to share maps, aerial surveillance video, and other information and communications. The ability to connect while on the move is an important improvement over current versions that work only at standstill, a limitation that makes troops and their vehicles targets.
Many of the Taunton workers are veterans or members of the National Guard and consider themselves part of the military family. Soldiers frequently visit the Taunton plant for training, and General Dynamics has employees stationed in Afghanistan to service the company’s equipment.
“Each employee takes pride in what they do,” said 12-year employee Karen Porter.
The General Dynamics plant is in a busy industrial park at the edge of Taunton, on the southern end of a long suburban corridor along Interstate 495 that includes other major employers such as Cisco Systems and IBM. But with an unemployment rate of 7.3 percent, above the average for Massachusetts, Taunton is struggling with lingering effects of the recession.
“I don’t get many customers saying, ‘I got a new job,’ ” said Deanna Smith, who runs Deanna’s Tobacco & Cigar Shop in downtown Taunton and counts General Dynamic employees among her steady customers. “I’m tired of hearing people say on a daily basis they just lost their job, or got their hours cut, or got their health benefits cut.”
Smith said she has hung on thanks, in part, to General Dynamics employees who buy cigars after work. But if the company lays off people, Smith said, she and other store owners in Taunton will surely feel the loss.
“It hurts everyone, because now those guys won’t stop into a local sub shop to get something small on the way home, or they won’t come by here,” Smith said. “It adds up.”
Others, though, said the city should not depend on a defense industry facing an uncertain funding future.
“In the future, we’re going to have fewer ships, fewer aircraft — that budget is shrinking massively,” said Ryan Gulley, a 50-year-old Taunton resident.
Taunton has been campaigning to host one of the casinos now allowed under Massachusetts law.
In June, residents approved a nonbinding referendum in support of a proposed gambling facility run by the Mashpee Wampanoag, making Taunton the first community in Massachusetts to officially volunteer to host a casino.
Mayor Thomas C. Hoye said the estimated 2,500 jobs the casino would provide are a key part of the city’s efforts to revitalize itself. Now the proposed General Dynamics cut is threatening to interrupt the momentum.
And as Congress and the Pentagon tussle over funding, Hoye and his colleagues can only watch from the sidelines.
“That’s the cross you bear at the local level,” Hoye said. “It does get frustrating, because a lot of things are beyond your control.”
Plant workers are also frustrated. But until the verdict comes down, many said the best way to deal with the threat is to keep working.
“We have to focus on the job we have today,” Miola said. “No one is bailing out. To bail out here is to give up.”
Find him on Twitter at @DanielAdams86.