Approximately 2,000 members of UE Local 506 rallied on Tuesday, April 16 just outside the East Gate of the Erie GE plant to defend jobs. They were joined by supporters from other unions and the community. GE announced on April 9 that it plans to lay off 950 UE 506 members by the end of the year, and to transfer a substantial portion of the work now done by UE members to its newly-built non-union plant in Fort Worth, Texas.
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The crowd began gathering around noon, when building trades unions staged a preliminary rally in solidarity with Local 506. By 2:00 the assembly was huge, but it suddenly grew even larger at 2:30 as hundreds of first shift workers marched together through the gate, behind two banners: "UE Local 506, Erie, PA" and "UE 506 Cares about the ERIE COMMUNITY." Motorists passing by expressed near-unanimous support for the union by honking their horns.
Members carried a variety of hand-made signs, as well as printed yard signs, which are now sprouting in front of homes around the Erie area, that read, "Keep It Made In Erie. UE Local 506."
Outgoing Local 506 President Roger Zaczyk kicked off the rally and expressed the local's strong determination to fight back. UE Eastern Region President Deb Gornall, a former Erie GE worker and leader in UE Local 618, the salaried workers' union, recounted that nearly everyone in her family has worked at GE, "and I've been fighting GE for 38 years." She read statements of support from several UE locals around the Eastern Region.
Bruce Klipple, UE General President, blasted GE's hypocrisy and dishonesty in misrepresenting its plans for the Fort Worth plant. "They lied to you and they lied to the Erie community" by insisting, up until very recently, that Fort Worth would be an "overflow" plant for situations when orders exceeded the Erie plant's capacity. He assured members that the national union commits all the resources need to help them in this fight.
Local 506 Business Agent Wayne Burnett looked out over the crowd and said, "I see a lot of people here who have dedicated their whole lives to GE. I see children in strollers who might have a job here someday. I see people who have made this plant the most successful in the GE chain. Is this our reward?" Burnett told GE that the company needs to learn "that we are the ones who put you where you are today." He added that the loss of jobs affects more than just 950 people, "but thousands of people in Pennsylvania and the tri-state area." He concluded, "This cannot happen!"
Zaczyk then introduced President-elect Scott Duke. Duke made clear that he is not intimidated by the challenges that GE has thrown at the union before he even takes office, and called on the membership to stand together to overcome this attack. He also reminded them that UE members made the company successful, and that the wages and benefits the members enjoy are the results of generations of union struggle. "Your paycheck may say GE on it, but never forget that those are union wages."
UE Political Action Director Chris Townsend emceed the event, and he welcomed read excerpts from letters of support from labor organizations around the country – including IUE-CWA Local 201 at the Lynn, MA GE plant. Two years ago Local 201, with long history of solidarity with Local 506, rejected GE's proposal to move some locomotive work from Erie to Lynn in exchange for the union accepting a "competitive" two-tier wage scheme.
The rally was also addressed by Ron Oliver, labor liason of the United Way of Erie County, a member of the United Steelworkers and a longtime manufacturing worker himself. He said when he received word of GE's announcement, it brought tears to his eyes. "You are my brothers and sisters," he said. He pledged that the United Way would assist UE members in any way it can.