GE protest mandate
© JESSICA GALLAGHER/ StaffCasey Layton of Greenville and a current General Electric employee holds a sign along side fellow GE employees and their supporters that were protesting the vaccine mandates outside of the GE gas plant in Greenville, Thursday, October 21, 2021.
Major Greenville County employers like General Electric and Lockheed Martin have started requiring employees to be vaccinated for COVID-19 to comply with the federal mandate, but some employees have said that they are against that. And they've taken to the streets.

About 150 to 200 protestors, most of them GE workers dressed in the slate-gray GE uniforms, gathered outside the GE gas plant in Greenville Thursday to make their feelings known.

Some said they had taken half a day off; some said that they had chosen not to go to work at all.

Jason Owens and Shannon Harrill, employees at the gas plant who said they've been with the company for nearly 20 years, said it's important to note that they were not demonstrating against the company — rather, they're against the vaccine requirement.

"We worked as an essential employee through the entire COVID pandemic," Harrill said. "We were required to be here and lose our job. Now you're requiring me to take it to stay here."

"What we need is Gov. (Henry) McMaster to do what he said he was going to do — which is stand up against the federal mandate," Owens said.

The protest also drew workers from other GE sites. Several workers from GE's aviation plant in Piedmont were the first to arrive.

Wayne Bridges, a 57-year-old worker from Greenville County who works at the aviation plant, said that he had worked with the company for 16 years and chose to not get vaccinated for religious reasons.

"We just want choice. It shouldn't be forced upon us," he said.

Last week, about 20 Lockheed Martin employees walked out of work to protest the requirements last week, two employees told The News, though a company spokesperson said fewer than 20 employees were out last week and none walked out after arriving at work.

Chloe Pine, wife of an aircraft mechanic, told The News that her husband, who chose not to get the vaccine because they did not trust it, is trying to get a religious exemption to bypass the order.

"But the way it [the email] was worded, it doesn't sound hopeful," she said.

Pine's family moved from Michigan three months ago and said that her husband's dismissal could threaten their financial stability.

"If it's the last resort, I guess that's what [get the vaccine] he'd have to do" she said. "It would really suck."

Lockheed Martin and General Electric have said they are following federal standards due to their position as federal contractors. Both companies said that all their employees are to be fully vaccinated before Dec. 8 unless they've been given religious or health exemptions.

The federal order requires employees working and contracting with the federal government, and major companies with 100 or more employees, to be fully vaccinated. To meet the deadline, employees of Lockheed Martin, as per an email sent out Oct. 13, were asked to get their first dose before Nov. 24.

Last month, major Greenville employers such as Duke Energy and Michelin had said that they were waiting for more information from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

Lockheed Martin and General Electric are the first of the major employers in the area to have required vaccines for continued employment.

Doubts about the vaccines have continued to fester, with "medical freedom" protests held weekly in downtown Greenville, but medical experts have said that vaccines are safe and effective. Experts say the vaccines are the best defense against the pandemic, but they say the vaccines continued to be dogged by misinformation.

Going forward, the debate around the federal vaccine mandate, split on partisan lines, is likely to involve an uphill legal battle.

Gov. Henry McMaster had said earlier last month that he would fight the federal order to "the gates of hell to protect the liberty and livelihood of every South Carolinian." That same week, South Carolina House Republicans called for a special meeting to discuss their plans to oppose the order.

House Speaker Jay Lucas, said in a Sept. letter to other members, that he was in touch with Gov. Henry McMaster and Attorney General Alan Wilson to oppose the mandate. "These efforts will likely involve courts and an exercise of full executive authority at the state level," the letter said.

Recently, the U.S. Department of Labor and OSHA warned South Carolina that it would revoke approval of the state's workplace safety place if it did not include OSHA-approved standards for healthcare workers. But South Carolina OSHA said that it had already implemented a COVID-19 standard, as an alternative to the federal standards.

"This is clearly a preemptive strike by the federal government," said Gov. McMaster. "With no state regulators in the way, the federal Labor Department will be free to penalize employers who do not comply with President Biden's unconstitutional vaccine mandate."

McMaster said that he has instructed SC Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation Director Emily Farr to "begin immediate preparations for a vigorous and lengthy legal fight."

While the COVID-19 standard catered only to workers in a healthcare setting, OSHA's Acting Assistant Secretary Jim Frederick said that the agency was currently working on a potential new Emergency Temporary Standard that will include requirements of either vaccination or testing of workers in workplaces.