Aboard a bus bound for the General Electric
stockholders meeting here on April 21, Don Kelley announced to his fellow retirees that if possible he intended to speak directly to CEO Jack Welch. Some laughed.
But Kelley was serious. Before the meeting in the International Exposition Center got underway, the Erie GE retiree saw Welch and took the opportunity to speak directly to him.
"Many of our older retired employees need help," said Kelley, who has been retired 20 years this year. "The pension plan is well structured and is able to give more benefits to the older retirees."
Kelley reminded Welch of his remarks at a televised seminar that "truly, everyone counts." "If you really mean that," the retired employee told the GE top boss, "consider helping the benefits for the retired."
Kelley, who is on the steering committee of Retirees Association of General Electric (RAGE), told the UE NEWS that he wasn’t there just for himself. (The Erie retirees’ organization was launched with the help of UE.)
Among those who would appreciate a pension increase from GE is Julia Savage, who was among the 54 retirees on the RAGE bus from Erie, Pa. She retired from GE about 14 years ago after 29 years of service. Savage says her $368 monthly pension makes it hard to get by. "It’s not enough," she says. "Each year it gets harder and harder. Everything goes up but our pensions."
GE retirees have not received a cost-of-living adjustment since 1996, only the second increase this decade. (GE refuses to recognize the union’s right to bargain for retirees, hiding behind a Supreme Court decision.)
Not that the money isn’t there — GE’s pension fund is overfunded by $15.9 billion. After paying out $1.8 billion in benefits last year, the fund still increased by almost $5 billion.
"They could give an annual cost-of-living increase and they wouldn’t even touch that," says Charlie Fry, a RAGE founder and retired UE Local 506 member.
RAGE members and members of UE Locals 506 and 618 in Erie, together with retirees and workers from other union-represented GE plants, picketed and leafleted the International Exposition Center before taking their places inside the GE stockholders’ meeting. During the meeting, several retirees addressed Welch and shareholders.
"I plead with you, bring good things to retirees," said Helen Quirini, a retired IUE Local 301 member who had been a UE activist during her 39 years at the Schenectady, N.Y. GE plant.
Quirini proposed that retirees receive the same benefits as current union members will receive upon retirement from GE.
Fry said he was impressed by those who spoke on behalf of annual cost of living adjustments. "They did a good job," he said.
Retirees also spoke in favor of a shareholder resolution — ultimately defeated — to eliminate retirement benefits to people who serve on GE’s board of directors but don’t work for the company. Retired directors are currently paid an annual benefit of $75,000 a year for life.
"The company has no right to give this money away," fumed Fry. "It’s not their money — it belongs to the pensioners."
Fry said he was pleased with the solidarity evident among GE unions represented at the picket line and stockholders’ meeting.
"We will be joining with them in the future, we will be mobilizing all the locals at one time and our people on retirees’ issues," Fry vowed. "We will be a force to be reckoned with."