SCHENECTADY — The union representing hourly workers at General Electric’s Schenectady campus rallied at the gate Tuesday, firing up a couple hundred members as contract talks with the financially troubled company draw near.
Joining IUE-CWA Local 301 for the early afternoon rally were members of four other Capital Region unions. Most carried signs for the Union Strong campaign of the New York State AFL-CIO, an umbrella organization for 3,000 unions representing 2.5 million New Yorkers.
Many of those present cast the impending contract talks against a larger picture of organized labor vs. big corporations in America.
But the focus was on GE's workers here. Their four-year contract expires in June, and its replacement will be negotiated amid an aggressive cost- and job-cutting campaign by the industrial conglomerate, especially within its troubled GE Power unit, which was formerly headquartered at the foot of Erie Boulevard and still accounts for many of the jobs there.
Local 301 Business Agent Rob Macherone, who will be going with a negotiating committee to Cincinnati for contract talks June 3, said he expects GE will try to improve its bottom line through savings on his members’ salaries and benefits.
“The big things this time are affordable healthcare and job and income security,” he said. “Decisions that were not made by our membership nationwide, that comes off our backs. In essence they want us to bail them out,” he said, referring to the throng circling on Edison Avenue.
Speakers taking turns with a megaphone made the same point in various ways. Asked for response, GE said via email:
“GE looks forward to beginning our national union negotiations this summer, including those with our employees based in Schenectady represented by IUE. We have successfully negotiated 14 consecutive national agreements and many more local contracts over the past four decades. We are committed to reaching a fair contract that continues to provide good wages and meaningful benefits to our employees while ensuring that the company can address current industry challenges and succeed in today’s increasingly competitive world.”
A GE web page dedicated to contract talks uses similar language to paint the negotiations as important to the finances of both company and worker, “ensuring future success for GE and its employees.”
The familiar visual cues were present Tuesday: a giant inflatable rat, a corpulent inflatable pig with cigar and top hat, a union member dressed as the Grim Reaper, a bloody plastic machete protruding from the chest of a man whose sign accused GE of stabbing its retirees in the back.
“Union busting is disgusting,” one eight-syllable chant asserted.
Carl Kennebrew, international president of the IUE-CWA and leader of 45,000 union members, came to Schenectady to rally the crowd.
He hedged a bit when asked about the union-busting chant. He described a situation where the union and its members are being damaged more as a byproduct of GE’s actions than by direct attack.
“I don’t see the respect given that is due,” Kennebrew said. “A lot of times, companies make bad decisions and employees pay for it.
“It’s not that they hold us responsible, but any time there’s a loss of jobs, or jobs moving out of the United States, it’s the workers that’s paying for it. It’s families that’s being left without any ways or means to take care of themselves.
“Bad decisions that are made in boardrooms affect these communities.”
Assemblyman Angelo L. Santabarbara, D-Rotterdam, whose district includes the GE plant and whose father worked there for more than 30 years as a welder and machinist, took the megaphone to attack GE’s revision of health benefits for retirees.
“Generations of families built this company and they forgot that,” he shouted. “We need to remind them we built General Electric.”
Santabarbara said he marched with the union because cutbacks like the ones affecting his father and his constituents have become commonplace in corporate America and need to be opposed.
“I’m seeing more of a big picture,” he said. “When I talk to GE about this, they say ‘All the other companies are doing it.’ So they say it’s a trend. It’s not a very good excuse, I’ve got to tell you, but I think they’re right — more and more companies are starting to claw back retirement benefits.”
Some retirees and a handful of friends and relatives joined union members at the rally, along with a few who had no direct connection to the union.
Michaela Ciovacco and Pamela Woods, both longtime Schenectady residents, had the day off and decided to come show support.
Ciovacco said she’s been more interested in the struggles of the once-mighty U.S. labor community since the 2016 election, when she joined Socialist Alternative.
Woods said her grandfather worked at GE and her boyfriend now works at GE, and it’s a critical piece of the community.
“Wouldn’t that be so devastating, honestly, if GE left?” Woods said. “It is a huge part of our community. We all know GE.”
General Electric has been cutting its GE Power business relentlessly, eliminating the headquarters and reducing its workforce by thousands as it tries to boost profitability. The company has refused to provide exact numbers for its workforce or its workforce reductions, but a key executive said offhandedly in March that the headcount has been reduced by a third in Schenectady and Greenville, South Carolina, another key manufacturing site for GE Power.
Macherone said Tuesday that more than 300 members of Local 301 have lost their GE jobs through direct cuts. With attrition, the total reduction through this latest cost-cutting campaign is more than 400, he said.
He said Local 301 has tried to help the bottom line, agreeing to create a lower-salary tier for new employees almost a decade ago and, just in the past year, agreeing to consolidate 40 job codes for union members to fewer than 10 at the Schenectady plant.
“We as a union got together with them when we saw the writing on the wall and we negotiated — it was our idea — a large-scale consolidation agreement. To make us more lean, more flexible and more competitive," Macherone said.
“We’ve done a lot as a union here in the last nine or 10 years to make GE as competitive as it can be. A lot of the issues that they’re having right now are things we can’t control.”
Macherone said it was the largest crowd he’d seen at a GE-Schenectady rally that he’s been involved in.