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Amid Speculation Over Sale, Appliance Park Workers Don't Fear Change

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Peering through plastic safety glasses, Brittany Fears methodically secured hoses to pieces of a new line of washing machines on Tuesday morning.

She's worked at the General Electric Appliance Park in Louisville for about five months. Recently, Fears and 100 or so others began working on the line that assembles a new top-loading washing machine model.

The public unveiling of the new washing machine line on Tuesday was a sign of new investment in Appliance Park, but Fears works under looming speculation about what's next for her and about 6,000 colleagues at the sprawling Louisville plant.

Last year, GE agreed to sell its appliance division to the Swedish company Electrolux for $3.3 billion. Mergers and acquisitions bring uncertainty regardless of the circumstances, but the GE-Electrolux deal became more complex this summer, when federal regulators sued to block the deal. The regulators argued the sale would reduce competition and lead to higher home appliance prices.

But GE has invested $100 million in the new washing machine production facility, which is unlike any other line at Appliance Park, said Doug Wichmann, the plant manager. He said it's "ergo-green," which means workers rarely need to bend down to reach the product or their tools.

As the companies gear up for the trial over the antitrust suit, which is expected later this year, employees on Tuesday continued doing their jobs.

Matt Reardon is a team leader on the new production line. He said he thinks his team has job security because the line is innovative for Appliance Park.

"We want to show Electrolux that this is the way we want to run manufacturing," Reardon said, adding that he believes the new product line is the next step for large-scale manufacturing.

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He said his team isn't worried about losing their jobs should the Electrolux-GE deal go through.

Fears is confident about the future of the Appliance Park workforce, which is made up of roughly 3,800 hourly workers. Her coworker Mike Potts is, too.

"I'm not too worried about it," said Potts, who stood next to Fears during his shift, putting pressure hoses on the new machines.

Still, Fears said the pending sale is a common topic of conversation in the lunch room and during breaks.

"Some people want it to go through, and some people hope that when Electrolux buys us, everything stays the same," she said. "But with a big change like that, it's bound to be some turnover and some changes."

Electrolux representatives have promised investors as much as $300 million in annual savings from the deal. Those savings would likely come from combining some materials and operations.

No job cuts have been announced, but Electrolux has corporate offices in Charlotte, N.C. That means some duplication among white collar positions, such as human resources and information technology, is likely. More than 2,000 employees at Appliance Park are in such jobs now.

Despite the anxieties and speculation, however, Wichmann said top executives at Appliance Park continue to spread a simple message to all employees, no matter their position.

"Outside of mergers or who you work for, keep making the place better every day so we can compete long-term," he said.

Jacob Ryan joined LPM in 2014. Ryan is originally from Eddyville, Kentucky. Email Jacob at jryan@lpm.org.