SCHENECTADY — Union leaders at General Electric’s Schenectady plant held an informational rally Wednesday calling for the industrial giant to use the facilities and workers it has idled to make ventilators for COVID-19 patients.
It was a small affair compared with the raucous rank-and-file rallies that IUE-CWA Local 301 holds periodically at the foot of Erie Boulevard. Only board members of Local 301 were present, and they stood at least two arm lengths apart — the requisite 6 feet that has become the new normal to slow the spread of the highly contagious virus.
It was one of a series of rallies held by the IUE-CWA on Wednesday at GE sites from Massachusetts to Texas, each of them places that once hosted a much larger GE workforce.
Union President Carl Kennebrew said the point was twofold:
First, stop laying off GE workers due to the paralyzing effects of the COVID-19 crisis and instead put them to work at vacant or underused facilities making ventilators, which can save the life of a critically ill COVID patient unable to breathe on their own.
Second, do a better job protecting GE workers from transmission of the disease.
On the latter point, Local 301 President Scott Fernandez said GE got off to a shaky start in Schenectady but is doing well by its workers now. He didn’t fault them.
“I think the company is learning on the fly,” he said. “It’s been very responsive to the safety measures.”
A few production workers in Schenectady contacted The Daily Gazette in March as the crisis developed to complain about lack of hand sanitizer and failure of social distancing.
“They’ve addressed that,” Fernandez said. “The hand sanitizer is kind of a different aspect — nobody had it. But they’ve gotten some, finally.
“It’s a pandemic, right? Nobody was prepared for this. But they’re adapting on the fly quite well and putting in safety measures.”
GE makes turbines and generators at the Schenectady campus. Its products are rated “essential” and it is allowed to continue operating as many other companies must shut down or move to work-at-home arrangements.
Responding to Wednesday’s rally, General Electric said IUE-CWA was asking the impossible with its proposals on ventilators — Schenectady has a low-speed, low-volume production line unsuited to rapid production of ventilators, for which there is a critical shortage of components now. It said:
“In Schenectady, our Gas Power workforce is fully focused on critical power infrastructure projects that are providing electricity where it’s needed around the world. Their work is critical to supporting a strong, reliable electricity grid. Separately, GE’s Healthcare business has already doubled ventilator production and continues to explore additional opportunities to support the fight against COVID-19, prioritizing fast, efficient options to meet this immediate need.”
Responding to the union’s complaints about worker safety and protection, it said:
“GE’s number one priority is the health and safety of our employees, and in line with the CDC, we have taken a number of preventive and protective measures to help protect our employees. We have implemented additional, COVID-related paid leave policies and continue to work with individual employees who may have unique risk factors or situations.”
Fernandez acknowledged that converting to ventilator production in Schenectady would not be quick or easy:
“It’s not switching overnight. I’m sure we could utilize some of our equipment here now to do it. Our point is also, we’re standing in solidarity with all our IUE sites across the country that may not be as fortunate as us right here to have a full capacity of work in some of our areas.”
However, he added, other recent switchovers at the Schenectady campus offer a model.
“We’ve retooled our facilities before, so we’ve proven we can do that, whether it was with the [Durathon] battery plant, where now they have investment castings over in [Building] 66, so we have an adaptable workforce.”