Thousands Rally in Erie
For Just and Fair GE Contract
ERIE, PA, June 4, 2007
Thousands of enthusiastic GE workers from several CBC unions filled Erie’s Civic Center arena Saturday for a rally in support of contract fairness, hosted by Erie UE-GE Locals 506 and 618. They heard UE and IUE-CWA leaders describe the contract issues and urge unity and action to win a contract that is fair to retirees, current GE workers, and those hired by GE in the future.
Local 506 President Frank Fusco welcomed the big crowd of union members. He told them that GE’s plan, in its proposal to lower benefits for new hires, is for "our generation to be the last generation to enjoy a better standard of living than our parents. That will happen, unless we stop it." Lynda Leech, Local 618 president, said "GE is sending a storm our way. We cannot let them win. We must stand together."
Jeff Crosby, president of IUE-CWA Local 201 in Lynn, MA, criticized GE’s dismissal of the needs of its retirees as "legacy costs." Crosby said GE workers and retirees have made the company extremely successful. "We have a right to a decent living and fair retirement from a company that can afford it."
OF PROGRESS ... AND GREED
Bob Santamoor, Chairman of the IUE-CWA-GE Conference Board, praised the GE retirees, many of whom were present in the hall. "If it wasn’t for their sacrifices we wouldn’t be here." The IUE-CWA chief negotiator warned, "We are dealing with a company that wants to take benefits away that we have had for many years. People before us fought for our benefits. We must protect them for retirees and new hires alike." Santamoor began his remarks by asking the crowd to express their thanks to the large force of volunteers from UE Locals 506 and 618, clad in florescent green T-shirt, who organized the event and made it a success. Participants gave the UE volunteers a standing ovation.
UE Eastern Region President Andrew Dinkelaker said that locals all around UE, whose members work for smaller employers, are closely watching the GE negotiations, because they know that what happens in GE will eventually affect them. Dinkelaker introduced a short documentary video on the 70-year history of UE struggle in GE. When the screen showed workers marching out of the Erie plant during last week’s work stoppage, the crowd erupted in applause. "Ours is a legacy of progress, while GE’s is a legacy of greed," Dinkelaker concluded.
Local 506 Business Agent Pat Rafferty thanked the members of other UE and CBC locals who traveled long distances to attend the rally. He described how the CBC rank-and-file unity rallies have grown over the past two decades. "GE has grown, too, by making more than $65,000 off of each one of you (in 2006 alone). Their pension fund is $15 billion overfunded, yet now GE wants to attack new hire retirement benefits." Rafferty warned members that GE’s proposal to gut new hire benefits "is a serious threat that we need to stop, at the same time aggressively pursue our goals." Rafferty then held up a copy of GE’s proposals regarding new hires, and dramatically walked over to a coffin just off the stage, and threw GE’s proposal in.
Steve Tormey, secretary of the UE-GE Conference Board, said he was glad to see the retirees seated in the front of the arena, "where they belong." Whenever the union raises the need for an increase in retirees’ pensions, "GE says they do not ‘recognize’ us as the representative of retirees. Next year will mark the 90th anniversary of the 1918 Erie GE strike, Tormey noted, a strike by members of various AFL craft union "demanding union recognition from GE." Despite that strike spreading to GE plants in Fort Wayne, IN, Schenectady, NY and Pittsfield, MA, the workers were defeated and did not achieve legal union recognition until some 20 years later. But, Tormey argued, "We are still fighting for recognition," because GE "continues to resist having to deal with the legitimate representatives of the workers over the needs of the workers."
Tormey paraphrased the remarks of Frank Fusco to the April 20 Erie Retirees’ Rally. "We take seriously our responsibility to those who came before us, those who are working now, and those who come after us."
"Over the next couple of weeks, what really matters in not what we say in New York, but what you do in the plants, from one end of this country to the other." He urged union members to wear union T-shirts, buttons, stickers, to hold rallies, and take other actions to impress upon GE management the seriousness of our commitment.
UE General President John Hovis also reminded members that winning debating points at the bargaining table is not what determines whether or not we get a good contract. "If it were simply a matter of winning the arguments in New York, GE workers would be the highest paid workers in the world on June 17. But that’s not the way it works with GE." Hovis said the rally, and what members do in their plants, are what is needed to get the unions’ message through to GE. Hovis said that in the coming week UE will be presenting its pension proposals to the company, with a representative of the Erie retirees joining UE negotiators at the table. "We are talking about a real structural increase for GE retirees, not a 13th check" (one-time bonus.) "Shame on you, GE, for the way you treat your retirees."
"GE needs to realize that it will not be a first-class company until workers earn first-class wages and benefits," Hovis added. "The members of the CBC unions and the retirees have no interest in going backwards. We intend to go forwards." He then led the crowd in the chant that rally MC Roger Zaczyk invoked throughout the event, "Forward together, backward never!"
MILLIONS OF VOICES
Letters were sent by the Australian Nursing federation, the Canadian Auto Workers (CAW), the Centrale des syndicats du Québec (CSQ), the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union of Canada (CEP), Confederaçao Nacional dos Metalurgicos CNM/CUT, the Fédération des Travailleurs de la Métallurgie CGT, the Frente Auténtico del Trabajo (FAT) of Mexico, International Federation of Chemical, Energy, Mine and General Workers' Unions (ICEM), Kilusang Mayo Uno of the Philippines, New Trade Union Initiative of India, National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA), Syndicat du la fonction publique de Québec (SFPQ), United Steelworkers/ Métallos (USW), National Confederation of Trade Unions of Japan (ZENROREN).
The solidarity at the rally among US GE workers was by voices worldwide. Fourteen labor organizations representing millions of workers from around the globe, sent letters to be shared with rally participants (more information about international support and solidarity will be available soon). From across the border in Mexico, Quebec and Canada and as far away as South Africa, Australia, France, Brazil, Japan, India and the Philippines, trade union leaders told GE workers that they are not alone.
UE members traveled to the rally from as far away as Ft. Edward, NY (Local 332); they were joined by Ohio UE-GE workers from Locals 731 and 751. A big delegation of IUE-CWA Local 201 members drove from Lynn, MA; and IUE-CWA Local 761 sent three busloads of members from the Louisville, KY GE plant. Several other CBC locals were present, including IUE-CWA Local 84707 from Cleveland; IUE-CWA Local 82161 Salem, VA; IUE-CWA Local 623, Pittsburgh, PA; IUE-CWA Local 84727 Warren, OH; UAW Local 647 Evendale, OH; Machinists Local 1916, Milwaukee; IFPTE Local 138, Erie, PA; IFPTE Local 149, Lynn, MA. Members of non-GE unions also attended to show their support, including UE Local 329, Elmira, NY; UE Local 683, Erie, PA; UE Local 684, North East, PA, Steelworkers Locals 2155 and 2155-7, Niles, OH; and Carpenters Local 81, Erie, PA.
Welcoming remarks and a proclamation praising UE’s role in Erie were offered by Erie County Executive Mark Divecchio, County Council Member Kyle Foust, and Erie City Council President Rubye Jenkins-Husband. At the conclusion of the rally, Erie UE volunteers provided participants with a picnic lunch.