Protesting during a Pandemic: Former Salem GE workers want their jobs back

SALEM, Va. (WDBJ7) - Amid the general shutdown Wednesday, a protest. Several people who say they're former employees of a now-empty manufacturing plant want their jobs back. This, they say, to help the country fight the coronavirus.

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For years, Vicky Hurley said she worked to make a solid product at the GE plant in Salem. Now, she's trying to make a point.

"I think you made a horrible mistake by closing this factory," she said, directing her message to the leaders at General Electric.

The plant where she used to look forward to work is now a place she doesn't like to look at at all.

"It literally makes me sick on my stomach," she said.

Hurley joined eight other people Wednesday. They held signs in a modest, socially distant protest in which they urged GE to reopen the largely empty plant and allow them to make items needed to fight the coronavirus.

"The factory is sitting there empty now and a lot of space and a lot of skilled people around there that could build ventilators and anything else that might would help out," Hurley said.

Just around the corner, they've taken that same message to the sky with a billboard directed at President Trump.

The protest was scheduled to happen simultaneously at the Salem plant and others in Texas, New York and Massachusetts. At other plants, workers demanded safer conditions. According to a release from the Industrial Division of the Communications Workers of America (IUE-CWA), those safety demands include, "the installation of proper equipment for taking the temperature of every person, employee or not, before they enter a GE facility and discussions with Union officials at both the national and plant level on how to best protect workers required to remain on the job during the COVID-19 pandemic."

WDBJ7 reached out to General Electric. A spokesperson said he got the message from the union.

He said in an emailed statement, “GE is working around the clock to increase production of much-needed medical equipment. GE Healthcare has already doubled ventilator production capacity, with a plan to double it again by June, in addition to partnering with Ford Motor Company to further increase ventilator production. We continue to explore additional opportunities to support the fight against COVID-19, prioritizing fast, efficient options to meet this immediate need, while also supporting ongoing mission-critical work for our customers as well.”

Overall, the company believes the time it would take to re-open the facility and re-tool it for ventilator production would not be the most efficient or expedient way to increase ventilator production.

The GE statement mentioned re-tooling the plant wouldn't be the most efficient route right now. That's because in November, the company auctioned off much of the machinery and tools they had used.

Hurley countered it would give GE a fresh slate to start over, especially because she thinks this wont be the last time we could be in this kind of situation.

"At this time, they could be one of the bright spots in the country and step up and help us out," she said.

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