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Working In These Times

Monday, Jun 6, 2011, 2:17 pm

Inspired by Wisconsin, Union Sees Record Turnout in Rally Against GE

BY Mike Elk

UE Local 506 members march down State Street in Erie, Pa., as part of the “We Are One” rally in October 2010.   (Photo via ueunion.org)

On Saturday, 3,500 people showed up to rally in Erie, Pa., to protest the concessions General Electric is asking its workers to accept. Workers are currently negotiating a contract in New York City set to expire with General Electric on June 19.

As I have reported before, despite making record profits last year and paying zero in income taxes, GE has signaled it will ask its workers for major concessions in contract negotiations, including elimination of a defined contribution benefit pension for new employees and implementation of "health savings" accounts, a move the company has already implemented for non-union salaried employees as well. GE has also indicated that it will ask for a two-tier wage system for new workers.

In response to the unprecedented drives for concessions, the 10 unions negotiating a joint contract have organized on an unprecedented level. They have made daily bargaining updates available on their website. The records, which are detailed and widely distributed to union members, aim to keep members active, informed and prepared to engage in action against the company if it does not relent in its push for concessions.

"This is a three-generation attack; no one is spared," said Rick Casilli, business agent for United Electrical workers union Local 201, which represents GE workers in Lynn, Mass. "They are going after the retirees on the pension, ... workers on pension and health care, and the new hires with a two-tier wage system."

Organizers are seeing many union locals that have been inactive mobilizing in record numbers. The 3,500-person strong Erie rally was the largest GE workers have held in over a decade.

While the increased mobilization is a response to the unprecedented concessions being asked, union leaders also see the fight in Wisconsin playing a role. Wisconsin has inspired countless union members to become more involved in their unions and fight back against the attacks coming against them. Union members even picked the University of Wisconsin Badger as the mascot of the Erie rally.

"UE Local 506 picked the Badger as the face of our Erie event. Like union families all across the country we are facing employer attacks,” says UE Political Action Director Chris Townsend. “We intend to respond by taking a lesson from the Wisconsin battle and the Badger both.”

The increased activity over the General Electric contract fight is yet another sign that the fight in Wisconsin has awakened a sleeping giant—working people.

Mike Elk is an In These Times Staff Writer and a regular contributor to the labor blog Working In These Times. He can be reached at mike@inthesetimes.com.

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