UE-GE 2011 Contract Information: Negotiations Summary - Tuesday, June 14 (#11)

Summary #11
GE Drops Health Choice Bomb –
Retirees Included on Target List

New York – Tuesday, June 14

Small table negotiations began in earnest Tuesday with GE’s promised “roll out” of its medical insurance proposals. Unfortunately, GE appeared to be more concerned about insuring the company’s profits rather than employees’ health, judging from the noxious list of takeaways that flowed across the table during the morning session.

As expected, the company is undertaking to undo union negotiated medical benefits built up over decades by simply abolishing both Health Care Preferred (HCP) and Comprehensive Medical Benefits (CMB) in favor of its massive cost-shifting scheme, better known as Health Choice.

GE’s John Gritti, tasked with serving up this unappetizing stew to wary union bargainers, temporarily piqued the curiosity of the assemblage by noting that the company’s proposal was entitled “GE Health Choice for Production Employees.” But any hopes that this sad excuse for medical coverage was substantively different from what exempt salaried workers have suffered under for the last 18 months were soon dashed.

In fact, the employee contributions, deductibles, co-insurance maximums, etc. proposed are identical to those now in effect for the salaried population. This from a company who previously stated they were here to “negotiate.” They could have mailed it in and saved us the trouble of listening to it. To add insult to injury, GE went on to propose additional large increases to contributions to take effect in two years. It’s like the landlord raising the rent after blowing the house down.

Needless to say, union negotiators were decidedly unenthusiastic, and uniformly told GE they were not about to consume the company’s stale 18-month old health care “roll.” Health Choice may render major surgery unaffordable to those covered under it, but major surgery is precisely what is needed to GE’s positions on medical issues if there is to be an agreement by next Sunday.

Post-65 Retirees in GE’s Gun Sights

GE followed up its Health Choice attack with an assault on post-65 retirees. Having told us for years that they did not recognize the union as the bargaining agent for retirees, GE nevertheless was eager to discuss the Pensioners’ Prescription Drug Plan (PPDP). The company not only proposed increasing drug co-pays under PPDP, but also wants impose a new contribution for coverage on top of that. It apparently does not matter to GE that they have realized hundreds of millions in Part D Medicare subsidies from the government over the past several years, and last year paid over 30% less for PPDP than they did five years ago! Hooked on their cost-shifting jag, GE does not intend to spare even retirees living on fixed incomes. We wonder how this all fits into their “Healthy Imagination” initiative, but don’t waste your time waiting for any TV ads on this subject.

On a more positive note, the company did propose some dental plan improvements, including a modest increase in dental benefit schedules, as well as partial coverage for dental implants. In addition, there were a couple of decent proposals on vision care dealing with coverage for those with low vision, as well as improved coverage for contact lenses. These proposals notwithstanding, it’s clear that GE has turned a blind eye to the medical needs of GE workers and retirees in favor of subjecting them to a massive cost dump. Resistance to this must come not merely from bargainers in New York, but from GE workers across the country if we are to preserve what took so many years to negotiate.

Pension Developments

With nowhere to go but up from the morning’s melange of proposed insurance takeaways, the brief 30-minute afternoon session actually contained some positive, if not overwhelming, pension proposals on GE’s part. The company offered an increase in the guaranteed minimum tables, as well as a career earnings “update” which will enhance the pensions for many going out on the career formula when they retire. Other proposed improvements included a small increase to the regular early retirement supplement, and an increase in the annual earnings threshold, currently $70,000, after which mandatory employee pension contributions kick in.

While these proposals were welcomed by the union committee, particularly after the monstrosities of the morning session, they included nothing concerning such issues as earlier retirement, improvement of disability pensions, or a raise for retirees, which may be needed more than ever in light of GE’s designs on PPDP.

And lest anyone think that GE has forgotten about trying to exclude new hires from the Pension Plan, the company has scheduled for tomorrow proposals concerning new hires that we suspect will hardly constitute a “welcome aboard” kind of reception for those of our brothers and sisters to come. Stay tuned for more on that, and to keep up with other developments from national UE- “Generous Electric” negotiations.

UE was represented at the small table by General President John Hovis and Conference Board Secretary Steve Tormey.

Large Tables Convene

Getting underway Tuesday were the two “large table” subcommittees, comprised of union negotiators from affiliated CBC unions. One subcommittee, co-chaired by UE Local 506 Business Agent Wayne Burnett dealt primarily with pension and insurance issues. The second subcommittee, co-chaired by UE Political Action Director Chris Townsend, handled contract language and job security issues among others. UE national negotiating committee members were present at both tables, along with dozens of representatives of the various unions that make up the Coordinated Bargaining Committee (CBC).

Pension and Insurance Subcommittee

Pension and Insurance subcommittee opened up Tuesday morning and met through the day. The majority of the subcommittee’s work involved a review of the union’s proposals to improve the current Health Care Preferred (HCP) and Comprehensive Medical Benefits (CMB) which GE workers now enjoy. Responding to company bargainer’s claim that workers need better education on company medical benefits, UE Local 506 Business Agent Wayne Burnett leveled a blistering rebuke on Health Choice: “I don’t need an education on Health Choice, because I don’t need any more schooling on benefits that are detrimental to me and to our members.”

In the afternoon session during which the unions pressed proposals to improve prescription drug coverage for pre-65 and post-65 retirees, UE International Representative Gene Elk reminded the company that it had received hundreds of millions in windfall subsidies from the federal government under Medicare Part D and from another program to assist workers who retire before age 65, the Early Retirement Reinsurance Program. Elk told the company, “that with these subsidies the company can easily afford to improve retiree’s prescription drug coverage.”

The subcommittee will discuss pension issues during the Wednesday, June 15 session.

UE was represented at the Pension and Insurance Subcommittee by Co-Chair Wayne Burnett, Local 506, General Secretary-Treasurer Bruce Klipple, Angel Sardina, Local 332, and International Rep. Gene Elk.

Contract Language Subcommittee

The Contract Language subcommittee met simultaneously during the day on Tuesday. The subcommittee engaged in a spirited and detailed exchange with GE bargainers covering the critical issues of Preferential Placement experience along with the difficulties encountered by the various unions with the often frustrating Job Preservation Steering Committee process.

In the morning session union negotiators pressed the company on a long litany of shortcomings related to the Preferential Placement contract provisions. The union negotiators reminded the company of how and why these critical provisions were established — and that the company was not cooperative in applying these contract terms for several years after their inception.

Various specific proposals were given to GE which would improve the Preferential Placement language.

Union negotiators detailed several major problems that had been encountered with the company in implementing the contract terms, including the need to better protect those workers compelled to use the Preferential Placement option. Union bargainers argued the spread of GE's “competitive wages” philosophy was eroding the original intent of Preferential Placement and reducing the number of realistic placement opportunities. Workers were, not surprisingly, reluctant or unwilling to move into jobs at GE locations where wages had already been lowered.

Company negotiators leaped to the defense of the “competitive wage” arrangements at merely their mention, acknowledging that a growing number of unorganized locations were having these terms imposed on their workforces. This led UE Co-Chair Chris Townsend to ask, “Just how many of the GE Union Relations staff in Fairfield are on these lower ‘competitive wages.’ Are any of you?” Company negotiators declined to answer.

The afternoon session of the Contract Language Subcommittee featured input from every union representative in attendance on the need to, once and for all, make the Job Preservation Steering Committee (JPSC) contract terms work as originally intended when negotiated nearly 15 years ago. One union leader after another spoke in detail about the largely frustrating – and sometimes downright insulting – ways that plant management ignores and stonewalls the JPSC process.

UE Local 506 President Roger Zaczyk pressed the company to address their farm-out mania, which is creating additional costs stemming from numerous quality problems associated with low-bid vendors, “In the Erie Works, JPSC has been exhausted ... and you don’t count the costs of quality problems because of it.” said Zaczyk.

Local 332 President Scott Gates said when his local pushed GE to work with them on the JPSC proposals, “We knew right away the Company wasn’t interested.” Local 618 President Mary Stewart-Flowers also concurred and pointed out that, “Local 618 did not gain one job from the JPSC because you don’t have to talk to us.” Local 618 falls under the minimum threshold of having at least 50 members in order to compel the Company to engage in JPSC talks, and a proposal was made to eliminate this minimum number as a consequence.

Union negotiators concluded the afternoon session by proposing a detailed list of improvements to the JPSC process to make it more productive. They also remind the company of the numerous additional job security demands that been placed before the Company over the past 3 weeks.

Union negotiators will raise the issues of wages, hours and overtime, schedules and shifts, and paid time off when negotiations resume on June 15.

UE was represented at the Contract Language subcommittee by Co-Chair Chris Townsend, Political Action Director, Roger Zaczyk, Local 506, Scott Gates, Local 332, Mary Stewart- Flowers, Local 618, and Ron Flowers, Retirees Association of General Electric (RAGE).