AUSTINTOWN Local GE workers join strike threat over health care



GE says it will continue to fill customer orders if there is a strike.
VINDICATOR STAFF/WIRE REPORT
AUSTINTOWN -- Hundreds of General Electric Co. employees in the Mahoning Valley are among thousands of GE workers nationwide who are threatening a strike to protest rising health insurance payments.
It would be the Connecticut-based conglomerate's first national strike in more than 30 years.
GE said the strike would involve about 17,500 employees at the company's manufacturing plants. Union officials say the strike could involve at least 20,000 workers.
Locally, the walkout would include about 115 at GE's Austintown plant and more than 500 at its Ohio Lamp Plant in Warren, said Janet Bernard, president of International Union of Electrical Workers-Communications Workers of America Local 734, which represents the workers.
Union officials are also hoping that 200 union workers at GE's Niles plant will join them, Bernard said. Those employees are represented by another union, United Electrical Workers, but their contract is the same.
The objection
Employees are protesting GE's decision to increase co-payments for health insurance Jan. 1. GE says the increases would cost the average employee about $200 a year and follow sharply rising health care costs.
"We know that health care is a major issue and it's going up for everybody," Bernard said, "but we don't think it's fair that the company says it can't provide for its people when it's making such huge profits."
The last national strike by GE employees was in 1969, when workers were off the job for about 14 weeks. This time, the strike is expected to be much shorter.
"I think we're talking about a strike of a relatively short duration -- I'd say a week or less," said Douglas Meyer, research director for the IUE-CWA.
Meyer said he expects the strike to begin later this month or in early February.
"It is definitely going to occur in the next several weeks," he said.
Union officials passed a resolution last month calling for a strike after Jan. 1.
Other businesses
GE, based in Fairfield, Conn., also makes jet engines and power turbines, and owns the NBC television network.
GE and the unions are not negotiating to resolve the issue. Union officials say the strike targets negotiations planned this spring for a new contract when GE will seek additional increases in the amount employees pay for health insurance.
Company officials say GE will weather the strike, which would affect about 6 percent of its global work force of 310,000.
"We plan to continue to meet the needs of our customers," spokesman Gary Sheffer said.
Soaring costs
Similar to many other companies, health care costs at GE have soared. Its health care costs have gone up by more than 40 percent in four years, from $965 million in 1999 to $1.4 billion last year, officials say.
"We've seen dramatic increases, with the increases expected to continue for the foreseeable future," Sheffer said.
GE has pledged to not increase co-payments in the new contract for most medical services, he said.
Union officials said the increase amounts to a shift of about $30 million from the company to workers, and that older workers will be especially hard hit because they rely on prescription drugs and other medical services.
"Who is in a better position to bear the cost? Is it a $300 billion corporation or some hourly worker having enough difficulty making ends meet from week to week?" asked Stephen Tormey, secretary of the United Electrical Radio and Machine Workers of America, which represents about 5,000 GE employees.
Union officials also say that GE profits substantially from rising health-care costs as a maker of medical equipment and providing insurance through its finance arm.

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