Union, Company Sum Up Positions;
Bargaining Moves into Second Phase
NEW YORK – Thursday, June 7
In the final session of the third week of bargaining, the company offered a presentation on GE Life Insurance, and the UE committee completed presentation of its proposals. Both sides summed up their concerns as the talks concluded this first phase.
Jennifer Edwards of GE narrated a PowerPoint presentation on life insurance, accidental death and dismemberment (AD&D) and several other insurance programs the company offers. Members of the UE committee asked several questions, but the presentation was non-controversial. UE-GE Conference Board Secretary Steve Tormey then presented the final UE proposal, to add language to Article IV, Discrimination and Coercion, requiring full compliance by the company with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), including providing "reasonable accommodation" to a worker’s disability where appropriate. Tormey raised an example from the Niles, OH location in which the company had denied a reasonable accommodation to a worker with a disability, and the company doctor kept the employee from working on the basis of a Functional Capacity Exam (FCE) that bore no obvious relevance to the job. The union brought in OSHA, who determined that the existing job design was unsafe even for fully able-bodied employees, and the company was forced to make changes that accommodated the disabled worker. "The company doctor was difficult to work with," recalled Ed Baran, Local 751.
Tormey mentioned a similar incident at Ft. Edward, where an injured worker was publicly disparaged and the next day the worker was forced off her job. Pat Rafferty, Local 506, said the FCE that the company administers to injured workers in these situations "doesn’t really match the injury or the job. People’s greatest fear is getting the bum’s rush off the job. These systems don’t work very well at all."
GE’s chief spokesperson John Gritti expressed sympathy for the union’s position on this issue. "I’ve seen it first-hand," he said. "We’ll take a look at this language proposal."
The two sides then made summary statements, wrapping up the first three weeks and phase one of the negotiations.
JOHN GRITTI CLOSING REMARKS
John Gritti thanked all participants. "It’s been a good three weeks. We’ve had a good exchange of views. Hopefully we’ve all learned a little more."
Gritti said it was important to make sure both sides "hear each other." He listed three things he’d heard clearly from the UE committee: "Take care of the new folks, take care of the senior folks, and don’t overreach."
He praised UE for its "first-rate presentations. But I’d expect nothing less from this group. You’ve done your homework, you come well prepared. Your members should be proud."
On the company side, Gritti said, "GE is very different from what it was 100 years ago," going from a manufacturer of mainly light bulbs and power generation equipment to "a huge global company. What hasn’t changed is it’s still a great company." He said all GE businesses have competition, "lighting does, certainly," and that if a company such as Caterpillar were to buy EMD, "that could mean significant competition" for the Erie locomotive business. "Erie is doing very well, but we have to look to the future."
He said health care costs more and, "I think at the end of the next couple of weeks, it’ll cost more to all of us." On SERO Windows, he said their "usefulness has come to an end." On new hires, he said there is no proposal from the company yet, but the benefits package that exempt salaried new hires are now under is "good, and addresses the realities we face."
"Most people believe that pensions will probably be better. Most people believe that wages will probably be better," he said. "You came to New York with the best jobs in town. I believe you’ll go home with even better ones." Gritti closed by thanking the four other members of his bargaining team who had been present and assisted him the entire three weeks.
UE BARGAINING COMMITTEE
UE President John Hovis introduced each member of the UE bargaining committee to offer their thoughts.
Ed Baran, Local 751, said that like immigrants to the U.S., displaced workers from closed or downsized GE plants in Northeast Ohio – Trumbull Lamp, Ravenna Lamp, Austintown Coil – have come to Niles-Mahoning Glass, as have workers "from defunct steel mills and ailing Delphi Packard." These workers came not to be second-class citizens "subjected to shift differential inequities or denied the opportunity to use adequate personal or vacation time for mental regeneration or family bonding." Rather, these workers came "to work diligently, produce a quality product, earn a decent livable wage and prosper into old age, as the corporate giant has."
"We at UE Local 751 stand to defend our way of life," Baran concluded. "We stand to defend a sustainable pension and total retirement package for all past, present and future employees. We stand to defend our right to quality medical coverage devoid of overburdening cost-shifting, and finally we stand to defend our privilege to be called a UE-GE worker."
Bill Wossum, Local 1010, started by talking about the human impact of the closing of the Ontario, California jet engine overhaul facility. "It was very painful to see people go, after working with them for 25 years. A lot of them still wish they had their jobs back. These are good people who helped GE tremendously. They’ve suffered, their families suffered." He said many provisions in the contract helped during this trauma, "but in some cases it didn’t come close" to being adequate.
Still speaking of the displaced Ontario workers, Wossum said, "They supplied the company with best practices. You took those best practices and gave them to the competition." Regarding this year’s bargaining, he said he and Eric Snedaker received distinct marching orders from their members. "They made it very clear to us that they don’t intend to go backwards."
Lynda Leech, president of Local 618, the Erie non-exempt salaried workers local, said "My bargaining unit is small, decimated over the years" by GE programs of automation and eroding the work in her local’s jurisdiction. Leech warned the company, "Start monkeying with heathcare, take away SEROs, and you’ll find out what we stand for. We know GE can do better by us." She thanked the company bargaining committee for "the opportunity to raise my concerns, and for your professionalism."
Scott Gates, Local 332, said national negotiations was a new experience for him. "We have a tremendous responsibility. We want a fair contract."
Bruce Reese, Local 332, said that Scott and he had "learned a lot" over the past three weeks. He stressed that "SERO Windows are important to our people in Ft. Edward. We had 2,000 members 20 years ago, we have 230 now. They feel they gave their best years to the company." Reese added, "New employees are going to be carrying the torch. We need to look out for them."
Marcia Barnhart, Local 731, said "We want to move forward, not back. The attack on new hires is indefensible." Conneaut workers are also concerned about SERO and expect "a fair and decent contract."
John Payne, with eight years service in Conneaut and Local 731, said he’d try to speak for the "tweener" employees, who are neither brand new or high in seniority. "Job and income security are very important to us. Why can’t we make the florescent light bulb, instead of GE doing that work in China?" Payne added, "Employees are also concerned about the shifting of medical costs onto us."
Tom O’Heron of the International Association of Machinists (IAM) said, "I don’t think anything we’re asking for is too much. It all needs to be addressed," including SERO Windows, maintaining good health care without eroding wages, and pensions for current and retired workers. He said it is important to "protect those who left things better for us," and that the company’s presentation on new hires "doesn’t leave things better for the next generation." He said GE has taken unfair advantage of the devastation caused by all the jobs that it and other companies sent overseas. O’Heron also warned company bargainers not to believe the "distorted message" they’d been getting from some local managers at IAM-represented locations; he said Machinists Union members are strongly behind the unions’ bargaining stance.
Bob Roberts of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) spoke next on his members’ "pride in being GE employees." But the company’s presentations over the past three weeks, "if they’re to be your proposals, are not the proposals of a first-class company."
Frank Fusco of Local 506 began by recalling the previous day, when the company told Ron Flowers, before he began his presentation on behalf of GE retirees, that the union doesn’t bargain for retirees. "We shouldn’t have to," said Fusco, "They should get the respect they earned." He added that the numbers both sides had heard from Flowers, regarding the pension checks some retirees are living on, was "mind-boggling -- $200 and $300 a month!"
Fusco also referred to the wage presentation by GE’s Jennifer Edwards. "She talked about wage-related premiums. That doesn’t apply to some people in Erie." The 60 cent an hour night shift bonus, imposed in 1988, "has shrunk to a little over two percent" of wages. He spoke of the need for vacation schedule improvements, especially for newer employees with families. "You need to let them have some time with their families." SERO Windows "have to be part of this contract."
If the company gets its way on changes to new hire benefits, Fusco noted, destroying early retirement and requiring future employees to work until age 65, a worker hired right after graduating high school "would have to work 47 years before they could retire." He called GE’s ideas on new hires "terrible."
Pat Rafferty said this was his fifth round of GE national negotiations, and that he’d been involved in the very tough 1988 bargaining. But he said the company had never before mounted "a serious threat to our foundation and principles – which include looking out for our past, present and future members. I for one don’t want to be the guy who allows the company to start chipping away at that foundation." Rafferty thanked the company representatives for their professionalism, and closed with the comment, "You know where we’re coming from."
'A VERY SERIOUS SITUATION'
Steve Tormey said the first three weeks’ work had been "very important to lay out where we stand." The bargaining sessions had been "very civilized, even amicable at times. But that doesn’t mask a very serious situation."
"I’ve never been as apprehensive about a set of negotiations as I am this time. The new hire issue disturbs me the most," he said. "It’s not a matter of dollars and cents. It’s a matter of principle," adding, "The company doesn’t need this."
Tormey said he hoped the company understood that "one size doesn’t fit all." There are significant differences between hourly and non-exempt employees on one hand, and exempt salaried employees on the other. "Our people don’t have the same opportunities and the same options as they have." He described the company’s stance on new hires as creating a "very dangerous, very difficult issue."
On medical cost-shifting, Tormey reminded the company that employees had borne five significant cost increases in the contract period, including major contribution increases and increased co-pays. During that same time GE’s cost increases "came in way below expectations," and it enjoyed a windfall from the government subsidy for Medicare Part D. On wages, he said "Our increases have been very modest," and COLA is providing "an historic low" in protection from inflation.
"Although I’m apprehensive, we intend to work like hell to try to resolve the issues," Tormey added. "But you have to give us enough to work with. Don’t paint yourselves into a corner."
John Hovis thanked the company committee for "your attention, your courtesy, and your professionalism," but added, "I came into this part of the negotiations apprehensive, and I leave no less apprehensive." Hovis repeated what he’d told the company in his opening statement on May 22, expressing the union’s commitment to do everything it can to reach an agreement, as UE has done for 70 years. But he added that the issues in this year’s talks "are tougher than those in 1985 or in 1988, which were very tough." If he had to guess, he said, "I’d say the odds are no better than 50-50 of coming out of this with an agreement." He again warned the company, "Don’t overreach, don’t back us into a corner we can’t get out of, and we’ll try not to back you into a corner."
Hovis closed by reminding the company of UE’s strong commitment to its principles. Standing firm against backward movement in bargaining is "an organizational and a principled issue with us. We do not take it lightly."
UE was represented in Thursday’s bargaining by President John Hovis; Secretary-Treasurer Bruce Klipple; Conference Board Secretary Steve Tormey; Scott Gates and Bruce Reese, Local 332; Marcia Barnhart and John Payne, Local 731; Lynda Leech, Local 618; Bill Wossum, Local 1010; Pat Rafferty and Frank Fusco, Local 506; and Ed Baran, Local 751. Also participating on the UE bargaining committee were Tom O’Heron of the IAM, Bob Roberts of IBEW, Rudy Gomez of UAW. Chris Townsend, UE political action director, represented UE at the IUE-CWA bargaining table. These web bulletins on the first three weeks of bargaining have been prepared by UE NEWS Managing Editor Al Hart.
Bargaining resumes next week. The separate UE and IUE-CWA bargaining table will be replaced by three bargaining tables, with joint delegations of the CBC unions meeting with the company. One subcommittee will deal with pension and insurance issues; a second subcommittee will address contract language. Both will include UE members as well as representatives from the other unions; these are often called the "big tables," and they begin meeting with the company Tuesday morning, June 12.
The so-called "small table," where the intense work takes place of trying to hammer out a complete agreement, begins meeting with GE on Monday afternoon, June 11. UE will be represented there by John Hovis and Steve Tormey. The IUE-CWA will have its two top negotiators involved, as well as a third person who serves as the official CBC note taker. The IBEW, IAM and UAW have one representative each at the small table.