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Unions at GE, Spirit, Textron Push Back on Vaccine Mandates

Oct. 21, 2021
An employee's right to apply for an exemption should be protected, unions say.

The nationwide push by governments and employers to mandate vaccination against the COVID-19 pandemic is receiving pushback from union representatives at aviation companies and other manufacturers. In the past few days, the International Union of Electricians (IUE-CWA) charged Electric Co.’s mandate with the National Labor Relations Board, and a district president at the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAMAW) has hired a lawyer to fight mandates at Spirit Aerosystems Inc. and Textron Aviation.

The key part of the mandate for many of the union rebuttals is workers’ right to apply for an exemption to vaccine requirements on disability-related or religious grounds, as well as what may happen to employees who are let go for their refusal to receive a vaccine.

Union statements are often ambivalent about the vaccine itself. “I don’t care if you’re vaccinated or you’re not vaccinated. This is not about vaccination,” as President of IAMAW District Lodge 70 Cornell Beard put it in a video statement. Beard’s local district represents workers at Textron Aviation and Spirit Aerosystems Inc. in Wichita, Kansas. The two companies employ more than 9,000 locals, according to the Wichita Business Journal.

In a video update released October 21, Beard clarified that his focus was not on overturning the mandate, but on securing exemptions.

“Do I think that we can stop a president’s mandate by ourselves with just our attorney? Absolutely not. … The mission is that anybody who puts in for an exemption—that should be granted,” said Beard.

Several unions have complained that the speed of the mandates—most require workers to receive proof of vaccination by December 8, consistent with the Biden administration’s deadline—have not given them enough time to negotiate with employers on specifics.

According to the Boston Business Journal, the NLRB complaint charged against General Electric by the IUE-CWA mainly hinges on how employees who do not receive the vaccine will be let go from the company. Whether or not employees are terminated, furloughed, or are required to resign for refusing vaccines may impact an employee’s eligibility for retirement, a union representative told the Journal.

Earlier this month, when Boeing said it would also implement a vaccine mandate, the president of the local IAM district said his union would “defend and advocate” for all members, including those who would not accept the vaccine.

According to CDC data, COVID-19 vaccines are effective at substantially reducing infection and death from COVID-19.  In the period between August 29-September 4, the agency found there were 665 COVID-19 cases and 113 deaths per 100,000 unvaccinated individuals, but only 9.1 and 0.7 deaths for those who had received vaccines. According to the Johns Hopkins University of Medicine, the pathogen has killed more than 700,000 people in the United States.

Many of the manufacturers affected, including General Electric and Boeing, are federal contractors, which makes their compliance with a draft OSHA rule on vaccines more urgent. The mandate, announced in September by President Biden, requires private employers with more than 100 employees to ensure workers are either vaccinated or regularly tested for COVID-19. Companies that see regular COVID tests as prohibitively expensive have moved to require vaccines, with testing only an option for employees who cite OSHA-accepted exemptions.

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