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GE plant workers push for union in Alabama in key test of labor strength

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With workers around the U.S. moving to unionize at a rate not seen in decades, employees at a GE plant in Alabama are the latest to file for union representation.

Manufacturing workers at the GE Aviation plant in Auburn, Alabama, filed on Monday to be represented by the IUE-CWA. The union said that a "strong majority" of the plant's approximately 180 workers supported joining, without offering specific figures.

Union drives are on the rise around the U.S. as employees demand better pay and working conditions amid a nationwide labor shortage, with workers at companies from Apple to Starbucks seeking to organize. Workers at the GE plant, which makes fuel nozzles for the LEAP jet engine, told CBS MoneyWatch their pay hasn't kept up with that of colleagues in other plants.

"I used to be excited to go to work, and now I'm dreading it," said Donna Rawlinson, who has worked at the Auburn plant for seven years. 

Rawlinson, 46, said workers at the facility earn much less than those at comparable GE Aviation locations in Greenville, South Carolina, and Madisonville, Kentucky, and that the raises the company has given have been wiped out by increases in health insurance costs. 

Rawlinson said some workers in Greenville make $80,000 a year, while "we don't even make $50,000, and we make the same parts," she said. "We work just as hard as everybody else, so why can't we make the same amount of money?"

The GE employees are working uphill in Alabama, a so-called right-to-work state that allows workers to benefit from union representation without paying union dues. The Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union lost two high-profile elections at an Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama, in the face of intense opposition from the company.

"Nothing ever gets done"

Marcus Durrell, another worker at GE Aviation's Auburn plant, said the company had taken away workers' specialized titles to avoid paying them more and that the plant's leadership ignored input from workers.

"We go to HR, and they listen to it, and nothing ever gets done," he told CBS MoneyWatch. 

"Other GE plants, they produce what we produce, but they're union plants and get paid more. It's just not fair," said Durrell, a single father of two. 

Workers also complained that, since they started organizing in April, managers had pulled them into anti-union meetings and retaliated against union supporters, including firing one worker. Durrell said managers had questioned him about his support for the union and asked him how he would vote — a move that is likely illegal under U.S. labor law.

GE did not address questions about alleged union-busting and retaliation when reached by CBS MoneyWatch. In a statement, the company said: "GE employs more than 55,000 Americans, pays competitive wages in every community in which we operate and has invested more than a billion dollars in our U.S. facilities since 2016, including in Auburn. We are committed to a direct relationship with our employees based on teamwork, cooperation and actively pursuing mutually beneficial goals."

The IUE-CWA represents about 3,000 members in GE facilities and is the largest union at the company. That number is down significantly from 4,900 GE workers it represented in 2016, according to GE figures.

The workers announced the campaign on Monday at a rally at the Birmingham offices of the National Labor Relations Board, with Alabama AFL-CIO president Bren Riley and leaders from Alabama Jobs With Justice and Alabama Interfaith Power and Light showing up in support.

GE Aviation recently rebranded as GE Aerospace while the company is in the process of splitting itself into three divisions. Unionized workers have opposed the GE split, saying the estimated $2 billion the process would cost is better spent investing in the company.

Said Durrell, "I want it so that my grandkids, if they want to work [in Auburn], can work there. I want to have jobs there for 40-plus years and not ship them overseas."

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