Union rallies for working class outside Schenectady GE plant

Annual event has grown
Dozens of General Electric employees and retirees gathered Wednesday, April 26, 2017, for a rally.
Dozens of General Electric employees and retirees gathered Wednesday, April 26, 2017, for a rally.

SCHENECTADY — Dozens of General Electric employees and their retired forebears rallied Wednesday outside the company’s Schenectady campus, protesting changes in benefits provided to GE retirees and, in the broader picture, against what they called a continuing assault on the middle class by corporate America.

The lunchtime rally was organized by IUE-CWA Local 301, the union that represents many production workers at the Schenectady plant, and it was timed to coincide with the annual meeting of company shareholders in Asheville, North Carolina. 

“This is our annual rally. Back in the past, we called it a pensioners rally,” said Local 301 Business Agent Rob Macherone. But it has grown to include the larger plight of the working class, both at General Electric and beyond — an “overall stripping of benefits,” he said.

For many of those holding signs in front of the the GE gate Wednesday, the changes in medical insurance provided by GE to its retirees was the biggest point of contention. As Macherone noted, everyone working at GE today has a stake in the matter, as they will one day be retirees.

General Electric, in 2015, announced it was canceling health coverage for its retired hourly employees and moving them to health exchanges. 

In response to Wednesday’s rally, the company gave the following statement:

“Our program provides post-65 retirees with access to a quality private exchange, additional cost-saving options and more choice in coverage. The change is consistent with trends among other large companies.”

Macherone summarized this explanation with a barnyard expletive Wednesday, as the marchers gathered to hear him speak at the conclusion of the rally. He said there are two faces to the corporate giant: A leader in innovation and a follower of trends.

“GE likes to be an industry leader … when it comes to benefits, their line is, ‘We’re consistent with companies across the country,’” he told The Daily Gazette.

General Electric made a few other points about the protest:

  • The unions negotiated essentially the same post-65 health care benefits for current employees who retire during the term of the current union contract.
  • The foundation of the post-65 retiree health care plan remains the same: Medicare was and continues to be the primary source of coverage. GE provides former production employees with access to a private Medicare marketplace to help them understand and enroll in Medicare supplement and prescription drug plans that best meet their individual needs. GE will also provide eligible retirees and spouses with financial assistance to help pay for certain eligible expenses. 
  • GE has made 10 voluntary pension improvements since 1980, including an increase in December 2015 for eligible participants.

The marchers Wednesday ranged from young to old, with one toddler riding high atop his dad’s shoulders and one aged retiree barely able to keep pace, even with the help of her cane.

Signs urged GE CEO Jeffrey Immelt to “Share the wealth, Jeff,” and, “Keep good union jobs here.” One marcher had a bloody plastic machete set so it appeared to protrude from his chest and a sign referencing retirees being stabbed in the back. Another was clad as the Grim Reaper: The jeans and workboots poking out from under his flowing black robe were the only indication he was probably a machinist, rather than the angel of death.

Mike Lareau, who’s worked at the Schenectady plant a combined 20 years in two stints, said he was marching for retirees and for his coworkers.

“Everybody retires someday,” he said.

“GE pensioners should not have to pay for our own insurance,” shouted Joy Hall in a voice larger than her small frame. The longtime Schenectady resident is retired after 35 years at the company.

Joe Madigan, of Mechanicville, has been a machinist for nine years at the Schenectady plant. He said he doesn’t feel his future is secure there — he’s worried production jobs will be relocated, thanks to GE’s 2015 acquisition of portions of French conglomerate Alstom.

“That stuff is going to move out of the U.S. extremely fast,” he said.

But he also took the main point of Wednesday’s rally to heart.

“I want them to get a raise,” he said of pensioners. “I have a feeling they’re going to take away our retirement.”

Vincent Pitucci, of Rotterdam, retired nine years ago from a 40-year career as a crane operator. He was steamed about losing the health benefits. He said he and others planned their working lives and retirements based on what they thought was a commitment from their employer.

“What GE promised, we should have kept,” he said. “Some people can’t afford to get insurance on the outside; it’s expensive.”

He marched also for the larger picture of an eroding middle class.

“We’re trying to make a statement for all union members: They don’t have to take this when they turn 65.”

Wednesday’s rally comes as General Electric is under investor pressure to reduce costs and improve its stock value. Macherone said that, so far, this hasn’t impacted unionized production workers at GE’s Schenectady/Rotterdam campus: There’s enough work to keep them employed well into 2018, and recent company layoffs haven’t touched their ranks.

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