Helen Quirini died more than three years ago, but her presence was widely felt outside the General Electric main gate in Schenectady on Thursday.
That’s where she used to lead pickets demanding GE increase the pensions of longtime retirees who never saw their monthly payments rise with the cost of living. That was the same message a few hundred retirees were trumpeting Thursday by the main gate, many of them inspired to show up in honor of Quirini, who never stopped fighting for them until she died at age 90 in October 2010.
“I’m here for Helen,” said 78-year-old Hank Blaize, a former generator assembler on the shop floor of Building 273 in Schenectady. “She was always rallying against Jack Welch. She was a thorn in his side, always pushing him regarding this issue.”
Blaize retired 19 years ago with a $600 a month pension after benefits. That was fine 19 years ago, but as time marches on and bills grow, it’s hardly been enough for him to eek out a living on, he said.
The retiree, who walks with a cane now, has only seen his pension increase once.
“It was when my wife died,” he said. “All the added benefits for her went back into my pension and it increased to $700.”
It’s been at least three years since the Local 301 Retiree Council, which Quirini used to head, has marched in protest of GE pensions. Quirini and her influence may be gone, but the time was right to march again, said union representative Brian Sullivan.
“The company kind of giggled at us that we were planning to do this,” he said. “And you know what? Maybe we don’t have as much pull as we used to. But when I look at guys that are making $300, $400, $500 a month on a pension and Jack Welch is making $9 million a year, it’s time to let the company know what we want. These guys are on canes and crutches. They’re not going to doctors because it’s either get your medical prescriptions filled or pay your National Grid bill.”
GE spokeswoman Chris Horne said that while the company does not have a cost-of-living or other provision for benefit increases, it has issued nine voluntary pension improvements since 1980, including a so-called 13th pension check in December 2011. The “13th check” was equivalent to one month’s pension payment and worth $140 million to 130,000 pensioners.
The increases are nice, the union says, but hardly worth much when 30-year retirees making $500 a month have to pay the same bills as relatively new retirees making $2,000 a month.
“The GE pension plan has been an important part of a competitive benefits package and has provided benefits to hundreds of thousands of GE retirees based on their pay and years of service with the company,” said Horne. “The [plan] is designed to provide each retiree a monthly benefit established at retirement.”
Today, there are about 230,000 pensioners and beneficiaries in the U.S. receiving payments from the plan, she said.
Sullivan, like Quirini before him, believes the company can afford to pony up more, given its vast wealth and Welch’s annual pension. Sullivan’s father worked for GE for 45 years and died seven years ago, leaving his mother with a $507 a month pension to live on.
“How do you live on $500 a month? You and I couldn’t,” Sullivan said Thursday. “People are living longer, their bills are significantly higher. So we want GE to expand the pension plan a little bit, give these folks more money. This plant was built on the backs of these folks here. These guys worked their tails off to make this company productive, and now it’s a multibillion-dollar corporation and they don’t care about these people, and they should.”