The General Electric workers trickled out of the factory Thursday and headed toward the island in front of the company’s sprawling Schenectady campus, where they joined the aging retirees who have rallied here for years. Holding signs that say “COLA NOW” and “Current Guaranteed Minimum Pensions,” the group marched slowly in a circle.
In the midst of the mostly male group was a short, white-haired woman who walks with a cane and wears a hearing aid; a poster that reads “GE — Bring Good Things to Pensioners — Please” hangs around her neck. The woman is 88-year-old Helen Quirini, and this was the 28th year she had organized the annual protest held at the Edison Avenue entrance to General Electric.
Quirini, who retired from General Electric in 1980 after working in the factory for decades, is a longtime labor activist who wears two hats: She is president of the retiree council for IUE-CWA Local 301, the union that represents workers at the GE plant in Schenectady, and also co-founded the GE Justice Fund, which coordinates 15 GE retiree councils throughout the country.
The fight continues
On Wednesday, Quirini will make her annual pilgrimage to GE’s annual shareholders’ meeting, to be held this year in Erie, Pa. There she will continue her fight for higher pensions for GE retirees; specifically, she’d like retirees to receive routine cost-of-living adjustments to their pensions, so their pensions can stay even with inflation, and the guaranteed minimum pension benefit of $34 per month per year of service.
“We have no cost of living,” Quirini said. “From the day you retire to then on in, you’re losing money.” She notes that retirees die ever year, and that the cost of a guaranteed minimum pension will diminish over time.
Last November, General Electric announced the first monthly pension increase in seven years, and retirees saw their monthly checks increase between 10 percent and 20 percent. After the increase, Quirini’s pension jumped from $736 a month to $866 a month, but she said a new retiree would receive more than $1,000 a month.
About 15,000 GE retirees live in the Capital Region.
Union leaders described Quirini, who lives in Rotterdam, as fearless and persistent.
“She’s a great advocate for retirees,” said Bob Santamoor, chairman of the IUE-CWA conference board and the union’s lead negotiator. “She was one of the first women in the shop pushing for equal wages, and she’s never stopped pushing.”
“She seems to have more energy than most of us do,” said Local 301 president Jose Fernandez. “She’s respected by everyone. As a woman, she had to go through a lot of fights [at GE] to establish herself.”
From the beginning
Quirini started working at GE in 1939, at the age of 21. One of the first women hired by the company, she quickly discovered that women didn’t earn the same amount of money as men, even though they did the same work. Blacks, she learned, also suffered discrimination. For both groups, it was impossible to advance to top managerial positions.
Eventually, Quirini joined Local 301 of the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers, becoming a shop steward and a board member. (In 1954, Local 301 workers voted to be represented by the International Union of Electrical Workers.) She held a variety of different jobs; when she retired, she was a production follower.
Quirini views her union work as a continuation of her fight against inequality. “I have all my life fought against discrimination,” she said, during an interview in her Rotterdam home. “I suffered as a woman at GE. As a woman you couldn’t go higher than a certain rate.”
Quirini has served as chair of the retirees council since 1982, and acknowledges that she’s growing a little fatigued. “We’re getting tired of demonstrating against the company, and we’re not getting very far,” she said.
But it’s not a fight she plans to quit, unless she gets what she wants.
“This is our 28th annual demonstration,” Quirini said. “You’d think the company would say hey and settle. I’m hopeful. … If I wasn’t hopeful, I wouldn’t have demonstrations.”
Not everyone shares Quirini’s hope.
“It’s a very tough fight, and one I don’t know if we can ever win,” Santamoor said. “To Helen’s credit, she organizes this every year. If you don’t keep asking for something, you’re never going to get it.”
General Electric’s pension fund is about $55.5 billion, and the retirees estimate that it has a $17 billion surplus. The fund has been funded solely by GE workers for about two decades and only pays employees hired before 2003.
“They’re just sitting on this big fund,” Quirini said. “It’s greed. Our capitalist system, to operate, is going to have to share with the people. People in power don’t give a damn about the little people.”
General Electric did not return a call for comment.
Santamoor said he worries about what will happen after Quirini dies.
“Who’s going to take over and continue this fight?” Santamoor said. “It’s becoming harder and harder to get retirees organized. Every year the numbers become smaller. Many people die off.”
At the rally on Thursday, Quirini watched the GE workers walk toward the island to join the retirees after punching for lunch, a smile on her face.
“You see the guys coming out from the shop?” she said. “Isn’t it beautiful? Many of my retirees can’t walk.”
“I’ve said that as long as there is breath in my body, I will fight any injustice,” Quirini said. “I don’t believe in the word never.”
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