About 200 General Electric workers staged a demonstration at the Schenectady plant on Friday to protest a Covid-19 vaccination mandate handed down by GE last week.
The workers, who were primarily IUE-CWA Local 301 members, were protesting GE’s October 15 announcement requiring that all employees be fully vaccinated by December 8 or face termination. The notice of the mandate, obtained by The Daily Gazette, also states that all employees disclose their vaccination status in an online GE portal prior to Nov. 24.
Christopher DePoalo, Local 301’s business agent, said the workers’ primary demand was more time to make a decision or to set up a weekly testing protocol that could allow employees who do not wish to be vaccinated to stay on the job.
“I just want to make sure that people have a choice,” DePoalo said. “We live in a free country, and I want to make sure that this stays a free country.”
Todd Alhart, a GE spokesperson, said via email that the company had shared information with employees to “allow for as much time as possible for employees to get vaccinated if they have not already.
“As a federal contractor, GE is complying with the executive order, which requires employees of federal contractors to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19,” Alhart said via email. “All GE U.S. employees will be fully vaccinated or receive a medical or religious accommodation by December 8 as required in the order.”
DePoalo said he and leaders of other unions, representing about 20,000 workers in total, would be meeting with GE officials on Monday night in Cincinnati, where the company has offices. GE did not confirm the meeting.
DePoalo said the mandate has been trying for his members.
“My phone hasn’t stopped ringing. I’ve had people crying, getting very emotional,” he said in an interview. “When you’re crying, when you’re put in this situation, and you don’t have enough time to make this decision, and they are going to actually terminate you from your job that you’ve had for 20 years, how are you going to support your family?”
DePoalo estimated that 60% of the roughly 700 Local 301 members were vaccinated.
“This is not a vax or non-vax issue,” he told the demonstrators. “This is a workers’ rights issue. GE should have brought us to the table sooner.”
He said his members have expressed a range of issues with Covid-19 vaccines, including that long-term effects are not known and that people who have been vaccinated can still contract the virus.
“People have a lack of faith,” he said in an interview. “With people with the vaccine still getting sick, it’s hard to say we’re going to enforce this to protect your safety. If you’re still getting sick, how are we protecting people’s safety?”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data tracking, unvaccinated people were 11 times more likely to die from Covid-19 and 12 times more likely to be hospitalized than vaccinated people.
For Chris Pinho, the business agent for Local 301 Atomic Energy, a Local 301 spinoff that represents about 250 workers with jobs ranging from janitorial services to electricians to carpenters to boiler house operators, the protest was about this mandate, as well as future decisions.
“The terms for employment were changed midstream during our contract. And now in order to have a job, you’re going to be forced to have the vaccination. Moving forward, we’re concerned with what’s going to happen with the booster shots and with other viruses,” he said.
DePoalo said he was concerned about the ramifications of a labor shortage if up to 40% of his members, who include machinists, winders and electricians that build power generators for GE, aren’t doing their jobs
“We turn the lights on. This is essential work,” he said. “I don’t understand how we would maintain the business down here. Tribal knowledge is so important. These are not jobs you can learn overnight. I know everybody thinks this is entry-level or simple work; it’s very technical.”
Joseph Audino, the president of the Local 301 Atomic Energy group, estimated 80% of his 250 members are vaccinated. But, “if there is one person that has a problem with the mandate, we’re going to [fight] for them,” he said.
Audino said his members, who are based at Knolls Atomic Power Laboratory in Niskayuna and the Kenneth Kesselring Site, were contemplating a strike in response to the vaccination mandate.
“We’re in talks with human resources right now, and we have a lot of people that are requesting religious exemptions. We’re being told that that is going to be a very hard accommodation for those people. We don’t believe that. If it doesn’t happen the way that we want it, we are going to be looking at a strike.”
For now, DePoalo said the GE workers in his union weren’t considering a strike.
“We’re going to negotiate first.”
More from The Daily Gazette:
Categories: Schenectady County