In Mid-Contract, Unions Strike GE To Defend Health Care
Union members braved the blistering cold and the tragic death of a picketer in mid-January to launch the first national strike against General Electric in three decades. The two-day strike targeted company plans to shift health care costs onto workers.
On January 14 and 15 close to 20,000 workers shut down 48 GE manufacturing plants in 23 states. The strikes were called jointly by the International Union of Electronic Workers (IUE-CWA) and the United Electrical Workers (UE). The two unions have national contracts for roughly 6% of GE’s U.S. workforce; another 16%, who did not strike, belong to 12 other unions and have local contracts.
The affected plants cover diverse manufacturing including aircraft engines, appliances, industrial systems, lighting, plastics, locomotive and other transportation products.
The last national strike against GE was a 102-day walkout in 1969 that shut down all the company’s unionized plants in the U.S.
GE announced in August 2002 that on January 1, 2003, it would impose considerably higher co-pays for its self-insured Health Care Preferred medical plan. More than 70% of GE employees and pre-65 retirees are covered under the HCP plan.
The increases will shift an estimated $30 million in costs to workers, according to UE/GE Conference Board Chairman Steve Tormey. Estimates from union leaders place the average annual cost at $300-$400 per worker, while the company estimates $200.
UE and IUE leaders say GE’s move is “the opening salvo” in a bid for most cost-shifting later this year. “If we don’t act now, GE will steamroll us come May negotiations,” stated Art Smith, chairman of the IUE-CWA/GE Conference Board. The national GE contract expires June 15, and the smaller local contracts frequently follow the lead of the national agreement.
The unions made use of an unusual provision in the contract that allows for a strike in mid-contract should management exercise a contractual option to raise costs. Locals in both unions voted overwhelmingly in favor of strikes in the last months of 2002.
Tormey pointed to the fact that as one of the world’s largest manufacturers of medical equipment (GE Medical Systems grossed $8 billion in sales last year), GE has a “conflict of interests in keeping health care costs down.” Last year GE opposed Patient’s Bill of Rights legislation.
GE showed a net profit last quarter of 12.7%, or a little over $4 billion. Business analysts expect GE to gross $16 billion over the last fiscal year.
DEATH ON THE LINES
In the early morning hours of the first day of the strike, an IUE member was struck and killed by a police car as she moved between gates at the GE appliance plant in Louisville, Kentucky. Michelle Rodgers, an active member of IUE Local 761 and a single mother of three, died at the scene from multiple traumatic injuries. Police called the death an accident.
Picket lines across the nation the following day memorialized Rodgers. Strikers placed black electrical tape on signs and buttons and moments of silence were observed in many of the strike locations.
CWA President Morty Bahr was quoted on Local 201’s website as saying that Rodgers’ children “will never want for anything.”
In Lynn, Massachusetts, IUE Local 201 members from the GE aircraft engine plant held a rally with other unions and community groups such as Jobs with Justice and Health Care for All. The rally linked the GE strike to a “health care crisis coming from a reliance on an employer-based, private insurance system.”
The health care industry’s escalation of costs has caused companies to try to maintain profits by shifting these costs back to their workers. Over the last year, premiums have risen an average 12.9%. According to a Kaiser Family Foundation report, more and more of the burden of this increase is being shifted to workers. From 2001 to 2002 alone, premiums paid by workers increased by over 27%.
The Kaiser Family Foundation reports that personal health care spending is now over $1 trillion a year in the U.S., the highest per worker of any industrialized country.
Striking union leaders were quick to draw connections between their own battle at GE and the larger trend. According to Tormey, cost shifting promises to be one of the “most difficult and contentious issues this year for the labor movement. We have to deal with this private, for-profit health care system we are in, or we’ll continue to face this year after year.”
UAW activists expect to see health care on the table this summer in negotiations with the Big Three. The Teamsters are discovering a similar fight with major trucking companies under the National Master Freight Agreement. Disputes over cost shifting in 2002-2003 led to strikes or heated contract campaigns for the Culinary Workers in Las Vegas, the Bakery and Confectionery Workers in Hershey, Pennsylvania, and more recently the Transport Workers in New York City.
Donations for the Rodgers Children Benefit Fund can be sent to: CWA, 501 3rd Street NW, Washington, DC 20001, attention Janine Brown.