May 31 was a national “Day of Action” by UE members in support of the ongoing fight by Local 506 members to keep their work and good-paying union jobs in Erie, Pennsylvania – a community that has made GE profitable for more than 100 years.
At its May 16-17 meeting, the UE General Executive Board adopted a “Statement of Solidarity” with Local 506 that called for support from all UE locals, starting with a day of action on May 31 in all three UE regions.
In the Northeast Region, dozens of demonstrators rallied at GE’s corporate headquarters in Fairfield, CT. Petitions with more than 10,000 signatures were presented to a GE representative outside the guarded entrance, along with a “Keep It Made in Erie” T-shirt for GE CEO Jeff Immelt. Participants came from UE Locals 203, 243, 274, 279, four sub-locals of Local 222, and included a Local 332 contingent who arrived by motorcycle from the GE plant in Fort Edward, NY. UE Local 506 members Lee Singleton and Terry Gigax came from Erie to help lead the Fairfield picket, and leaders of several UE locals spoke, as did Director of Organization Bob Kingsley and Northeast Region President Peter Knowlton.
Also on May 31, 40 people rallied at the headquarters of GE Transportation in Downtown Chicago, including members of Local 896, 1103, 1166, 1177, Warehouse Workers for Justice, Chicago Teachers Union, Workers United and Jobs with Justice. Two Local 506 members, Bill Bane and Joe Bradney participated, as did UE Secretary-Treasurer Andrew Dinkelaker. A delegation of four went inside and met with a human resources manager and delivered petitions with thousands of signatures.
ERIE: THREE RALLIES IN ONE DAY
The Day of Action in Erie was three actions, as members participated in plant gate shift rallies at 7:00 a.m., 1:30 and 3:00 p.m. Combined turnout for the three events was in the thousands. GE workers were joined by members of other UE locals and other unions, and the rallies were chaired by Eastern Region President Deb Gornall. “We need to tell this company, ‘You stole our work, bring it back!” UE General President Bruce Klipple told members, and he added, “We’re in the fight of our lives, and your national union will do whatever is needed to help you.”
UE International Rep. Gene Elk is the secretary of the UE-GE Conference board and is assisting Local 506’s officers in bargaining with the company. Elk blasted the company’s illegal movement work to Texas before giving the union notice, and for showing no interest at the bargaining table in saving jobs. “We’ve met with them 10 times now, and we’ve wasted time” discussing such things as the attendance policy, even though the company admits that if it got the changes it wants in attendance rules, it would save no jobs.
“Every day we’re in negotiations we ask them how we’re going to save jobs,” Elk continued. “And this company has not put forward a proposal to save even a single job.” Elk said the union suspects that the company would try to squeeze union members and take back the wage increase that is due on June 24. He asked members for their answer to that, and each time the crowd roared, “No!”
Jim Harvey, a 39-year-member, told a story that illustrates how UE members support the community. After thieves stole $3,500 worth of equipment from a BMX track on the West Side of Erie, members donated more than $4,000 in less than 24 hours to restore the recreation of the affected kids. “If we make you aware of an injustice in your community, you just open up your wallets to help. That’s what UE is all about. This union has donated millions of dollars over the years. I’ve never been so proud of this union.”
At the afternoon rally for first shift workers, Karen Anderson, the president of UE Local 618, the Erie plant salary workers, also spoke. She reminded members of the thousands of jobs GE had eliminated in Erie through the 1970s, ‘80s, and ‘90s, and that each time the company had been dishonest about its intentions. Other UE locals that participated were Local 642 and 684, and Kevin Luke of Local 684 spoke at the final afternoon rally.
Local 506 President Scott Duke delivered the final speech at each of the three rallies, with a very forceful message. “The community has embraced this local like I’ve never seen before,” he said. “When I walk in a store with a UE shirt on, strangers come up and tap me on the shoulder and say, ‘Thank you, we’re with you.’” Duke explained why the union had gone to the news media and exposed GE’s refusal to offer any proposals to save jobs, and then he described the union’s position. “Our proposal is to keep these 950 jobs. That’s our proposal! Anything else ain’t gonna happen. Wage freeze? Not going to happen. We earned those wages and we fought for those wages. They’re union wages. Be proud of that, and don’t ever forget it.”