GE strike hits health care costs

SCHENECTADY, NY – As part of the first national strike against the General Electric Company in over 30 years, members of the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE) Local 301 walked out of the GE Power Systems factory here, at 11 p.m. on Monday, Jan. 13.

The 2,000-member local went out with 15,500 other union members at 48 GE plants scattered across 23 states to protest an increase in co-payments for health care. The increase, imposed by GE on January 1, will cost each GE worker an estimated $400 per year and affect the families of nearly 145,000 active and retired union members.

Even with wind chill temperatures of

-15, hundreds of UE members set up picket lines at 5 a.m. Tuesday morning and braved the cold all day Tuesday and Wednesday. A giant rat was inflated in front of the plant’s main entrance. As one GE worker explained, “These rats want all the cheese. But, we’re gonna make them share it.”

More than 17,500 members of UE and the International Union of Electrical-Communications Workers of America (IUE-CWA) went on strike against GE Jan. 14-15. But, tragically a IUE-CWA picketer was killed in the early morning hours of Jan. 14 when hit by a police car. The victim, a woman in her mid-forties, was walking from one gate to another at the huge GE appliance factory in Louisville, KY.

Brian, a Local 301 member, who preferred that his last name not be used, said, “GE is expected to make record profits this year. To ask us to pay for higher health care costs is a kick in the teeth.”

“My drug prescription co-pay has tripled from $12 to $36 dollars,” he said, adding that the out-of-pocket expense will be even more difficult for the families of some 24,000 retirees living on a fixed income.

Tom Rexford, who has worked at GE’s Schenectady factory for 25 years, said, “They’ve (GE) got lots of money and they are not willing to share.” He said his health costs aren’t “that bad right now, but you never know.”

The unilateral increase in health care costs are seen by many union members as a sign of things to come. “I’m thinking down the road. If we let GE keep chopping away at our health care what will be next?” asked Rexford.

According to Edward Fire, IUE-CWA president, “GE has provoked a strike through its greed. A company that sets record profits each year – $14.1 billion in 2001 – can afford to maintain health benefits without forcing workers and retirees to pay more.”

Recently GE won the Jobs with Justice (JWJ) “Grinch of the Year” award, outpolling George W. Bush and Wal-Mart. JWJ, a national grassroots coalition that brings together community, student, religious and labor organizations, said “This award is given to those who have done the most damage to working families during the past year.”

According to the UE website, former General Electric CEO Jack Welch has a $9 million a year pension, $22 million in GE stock and an “unconditional and irrevocable” perks and payments contract with GE.

Many union members think Welch’s GE retirement parachute would be a much fairer way to pay the health care cost increases.

The current working agreement expires June 15 and GE has announced its intention to seek “substantial” increases in health care costs when negotiations begin in May. Union members hope that the two-day strike sends a message to GE that they won’t take concessions of any kind sitting down.

The author can be reached at tonypec@pww.org