Pensions, job security and health costs will be key contract issues.
By CYNTHIA VINARSKY
VINDICATOR BUSINESS WRITER
YOUNGSTOWN -- Union leaders representing General Electric workers nationally and at three local plants warned Thursday that contract talks will be tougher than usual this year and a nationwide strike may be inevitable.
"Unfortunately GE will never do what's required based on the power of persuasion," said Ed Fire, president of the International Union of Electrical Workers/Communication Workers of America. "The only thing they understand is the persuasion of power. I really think we may be headed for a real confrontation this time."
Fire, a Lowellville native, is visiting IUE/CWA bargaining team leaders around the country in advance of contract talks to begin May 19 in New York City. He said contracts for IUE/CWA and the United Electrical Radio and Machine Workers expire at midnight June 15.
GE issued a statement noting that the company has reached contract agreements with its unions without a strike for 30 years. "GE has good relationships with union leaders at both national and local levels," the company said.
"This constructive relationship has enabled the company and its unions to successfully negotiate 10 national contracts over the past three decades. The company's intent is to produce a new contract that is fair to employees and keeps our businesses and operations competitive."
Local GE workers joined about 20,000 fellow union members around the country in a two-day strike Jan. 14 and 15 protesting increased health care copayments.
It was the first national strike in 30 years for the Connecticut-based conglomerate.
Fire said health care costs will be a major issue in contract talks. Workers and retirees are already paying 15 percent of their health insurance costs, he said, and GE has said it wants that share to increase to 30 percent.
While the union understands that health care costs are rising, Fire said, GE is earning higher profits every year and should be able to pay those higher costs instead of passing them on to employees. GE reported profits of $15.1 billion in 2002.
GE officials have said the company's health care costs have climbed 40 percent since 1999 and the high costs are affecting its ability to compete.
The union also hopes to win increased pension benefits for retirees and changes that would allow workers to retire earlier. The GE pension plan is overfunded by $5 billion, Fire said, arguing that the fund can afford the proposed changes.
He said the IUE and UEW will also bargain for a moratorium on plant closings for the life of the contract. GE wants a four-year pact, while the union prefers a shorter agreement.
Local GE union workers include 115 IUE members at GE's Austintown plant and 260 at its Ohio Lamp Plant in Warren and about 220 UEW members at the Niles plant.
IUE/CWA represents 14,000 active GE employees nationwide and 40,000 retirees; UEW represents about 6,000 active employees.