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Workers walk out over increases in health care costs
National two-day strike hits GE

By Annie Levin | January 17, 2003 | Page 15

LYNN, Mass.--Some 19,000 workers at General Electric plants around the country began a planned two-day strike January 14 in the first nationwide strike at GE since 1969.

The workers--14,000 members of the International Union of Electrical Workers (IUE)-CWA and 5,000 members of United Electrical (UE) workers--were set to strike 48 plants in 23 states as Socialist Worker went to press. GE's appliance, lighting, power systems, aircraft engine, consumer and industrial repair, industrial systems, plastics and transportation businesses will be affected.

At issue is GE's outrageous move on January 1 to increase the cost of co-payments on workers' health insurance--even though the current contract won't expire until May! The co-pay increases will cost the average worker an additional $300-$400--a minimum 62 percent increase--this year alone.

This attack hits especially hard the 24,000 families living on a fixed-income GE pension. The health care increase impacts 145,000 families, but only the two unions at GE have the contractual right to strike.

It's not like GE is hurting in this recession. GE's total health care costs, as a percentage of profit, were lower in 2001 than in 1999. That's because the company raked in $16 billion in profits last year.

GE is a company who over the last 20 years has epitomized corporate gluttony at the expense of workers. In Lynn, the company has cut thousands of jobs in the last decade. Yet GE's top six officers took home $41.4 million last year.

And the company still "owes" retired CEO Jack Welch--whose reign oversaw massive job cuts and plant closings--$51.3 million in "deferred salary" which doesn't even include his pension or the astounding half a billion dollars in assets he has already accumulated at GE!

IUE-CWA/GE Conference Board Chairman Art Smith said, "GE sees the U.S. health care market as a ripe business target from which it can make profits, not as a serious issue to be dealt with on a national basis."

In 2001, GE made $1.8 billion in profits from its medical systems division alone, not including additional profits from its health care financing and insurance businesses. "IUE-CWA is taking on the fight for affordable health care for all GE workers, including unrepresented workers," IUE-CWA President Ed Fire said.

"GE has provoked a strike through its greed. GE is making workers pay so it can meet Wall Street profit goals while the company pays excessive compensation and perks to current and former senior executives."

The real reason GE is launching this attack now is that they are trying to intimidate the unions as they go into a new period of national contract negotiations. IUE-CWA Local 201 in Lynn says the company is seeking to add $1,200 a year to workers' health care costs, and increases for retirees living on fixed incomes.

In past contracts, GE workers have twice given up cost-of-living increases specifically to keep down costs for health insurance. The 3,000 members of Local 761 in Louisville, Ky., also agreed to give up pay raises in 1999 in exchange for GE agreeing to a multimillion-dollar investment in its Louisville facilities.

But GE workers have learned the hard way that concessions only make the company hungrier for more. IUE-UE Local 761 President Randy Payton said what should be the motto of the entire labor movement in this recession, "We've tried givebacks. They don't work. Now we are pushing back."

GE workers planned to hold a community rally in Lynn January 15 to discuss the general crisis in health care in this country. IUE-CWA President Fire will speak. "This strike will be a major test of the union," Fire told members.

He reported that GE threatened--this time in writing--that GE will seek additional cost shifting in national negotiations. "We can't afford to wait," he said. "This strike will serve as a warning to GE that we will fight to keep affordable, quality health care. We are fighting now, and we'll fight in June as well."

With this strike, GE workers are setting a fighting example for the entire labor movement.

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