Representatives of UE locals in the General Electric chain adopted a comprehensive set of contract proposals at a meeting of the UE-GE Conference Board in the union’s national headquarters here March 28.
UE’s national negotiations with General Electric begin May 20 in New York. The UE national agreement with GE expires June 15.
Taking place nearly two months before the start of negotiations, the UE-GE Conference Board meeting, also occurred a little more than two months after the first national strike against GE in 33 years. The strike protested the company’s imposition of increased costs on employees enrolled in the Health Care Preferred managed care insurance plan.
Genl. Pres. John Hovis and Steve Tormey, secretary of the UE-GE Conference Board, pointed out to delegates that GE proposals are likely to include further cost-shifting. UE members need to be prepared to protect their health care and to back the union’s contract demands.
At the bargaining table, the UE committee will do a good job presenting arguments on behalf of those bargaining proposals, but the activity back in the plants will make the difference, said Tormey. The company is "taking the temperature" of the workforce and will make several assessments between now and June 15, the contract expiration, he said: "We have to keep on our message."
A presentation by UE Research Dir. Lisa Frank emphasized the ability of GE to afford contract improvements. The theme of this year’s corporate report is "Only GE" – and it’s clear that only GE has weathered the recession so comfortably, Frank said. GE experienced "a V-shaped recession," with only a slight (3 percent) dip in revenues – and no decline in profits.
GE’s stock price is among those that have fallen in post-bubble decline – but GE’s operating margin is at historic high levels, Frank said. GE’s traditional manufacturing sectors have contributed significantly to GE profits. GE’s net profit per worker last year was an astounding $44,819. Any of GE’s competitors would envy that kind of return, Frank observed.
The salary of GE CEO Jeff Immelt increased by 300 percent over the last two years, a rate far greater than dividends, productivity, net earnings, revenue, or workers’ pay – in that order. Frank pointed out that, adjusted for inflation, GE workers’ pay rose just 2.1 percent each of the past three years.
Contract surveys conducted by the union revealed strong worker interest in improved wages and more time off, and a willingness to fight over insurance cost-shifting and other takeaways, announced Tormey. Local 506 Bus. Agent Pat Rafferty reported that contract survey results from the Erie, Pa. plant show strong support for job security and improved pensions.
In reports from the locals, Rafferty said the two-day strike in January was "a tremendous boost," both in terms of membership participation and community support, which included donations of food and coffee. People know there is a health care crisis, and whether or not they like unions, they know unions are out in front on this issue, he said.
Comments by delegates on local plant conditions meshed with the experience in national-level grievances: the company’s refusal to fill jobs leads to turmoil on the shop floor, and grievances with regard to supervisors’ doing bargaining-unit work, subcontracting, failure to recall, abuse of temporary assignments, working out of classification and related contract violations. For example, Local 332 Bus. Agent Bob Brown reported that orders and work are strong at the Ft. Edwards, N.Y. facility. Nevertheless, because of a hiring freeze, the company has given the local two subcontracting notices in the last three months. Local 751 Chief Steward Terry Taylor similarly reported busy conditions at GE Mahoning Glass in Niles, Ohio but a hiring freeze is in effect there as well.
Tormey noted that almost every local had a grievance strike last year, often related to these issues.
GE complains about health care costs but balks at supporting the kind of fair, efficient and low-cost health care system that works well in Canada. The Canadian system works so well, said UE Political Action Dir. Chris Townsend, that the Canadian Auto Workers union convinced the Big Three auto companies to sign a statement in support of the Canadian system. "In Canada, GE saves a bundle on health care," Townsend observed. "They don’t have the costs, and they don’t have the paperwork."
Despite the war on Iraq, politicians still find the time to roll back labor’s gains, Townsend said. In particular, Congress is again taking up legislation that would essentially repeal overtime pay after 40 hours.