WARREN GE union workers will decide future of lower-tier jobs

Union leaders favor keeping the low-wage job class, but with changes to protect higher wage workers.
WARREN -- Union workers at General Electric's Ohio Lamp Plant will vote today on whether to eliminate a lower-wage employee classification -- an action that could leave 40 to 50 of their fellow workers jobless.
Dennis Wildman Sr., president of Local 722 of the International Union of Electrical Workers, said some GE employees see eliminating the low-wage tier as a way to improve the job security of regular-wage workers.
Union leaders oppose the idea, however, and will recommend contract revisions in the sections dealing with entry-level employees -- rather than eliminating the class altogether.
"I'm not used to seeing my union brothers and sisters wanting to do away with jobs," he said.
"Things are slow, and it's not a good time to be eliminating jobs. If this goes through, those low-wage jobs will be gone forever."
What's to be decided: The local's 500 members will be given three options, in voting set for 12:30 and 3:30 p.m. today at the union hall on North River Road. They can eliminate the low-wage, entry-level tier, modify the union's entry-level employee agreement with the company, or keep the status quo.
Lisa DeRubba, a Warren resident who has been working at the entry-level wage for three years, said she fears she will be unemployed if the class is eliminated.
"It's bad enough that we pay full union dues and we don't get full union wages," she said. "Now we've got union members voting out other union jobs."
Janice Fraser, a GE spokeswoman in Cleveland, said the company had no comment on the vote, which she said was a union matter.
She said GE is strong globally, but the sluggish national economy has forced layoffs and unscheduled shutdowns at its plants across the country.
Fraser would not comment on the prospects of GE's Warren plant. Wildman said the company has said it doesn't foresee more layoffs in the near future.
Low-tier jobs: He said GE created the low-wage jobs in 1994 as part of an agreement to move some work into the Warren plant that had been outsourced in the past.
Workers on the new tier started at $6.90 an hour with full benefits, and they now earn about $8.15 an hour, he said -- well below regular wage employees, whose salaries range from $18 to $25 an hour.
GE has laid off about 100 workers in the last few months, he said, and between 40 and 50 remain at the low-wage tier. Employment now stands at about 470.
Under the union's entry-level employee agreement, any future layoffs at the plant could force regular-wage employees to bump down to the entry-level class.
Wildman said he would like to see that bump down made optional, instead of mandatory. For some employees, low wages with full benefits would be preferable to a layoff with no benefits, he explained.
Union leaders would also like to see the contract amended to treat entry-level employees "more fairly," he said, by giving them some of the same seniority and overtime privileges allowed regular-wage employees.
GE's Austintown and Niles plants are not affected by the IUE vote today. Its Warren plant makes specialty lights. About 250 workers at its Niles plant make glass. Its Austintown plant, with about 200 employees, makes coils that go inside light bulbs.

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