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GE striker killed in picket line accident
We won't forget Michelle

By Annie Levin | January 24, 2003 | Page 11

WHEN KJESTON "Michelle" Rodgers left home on January 14 to join the picket line at the General Electric (GE) plant in Louisville, Ky., she had everything to live and fight for. Then at 5 a.m. on the first night of the strike, a police car plowed into Rodgers as she carried her picket sign in front of GE Appliance Park.

She died on the scene. The police officer who killed her claimed it was an accident, a claim that politicians and the media seemed to accept without question.

Rodgers was one of more than 17,000 members of the International Union of Electronic Workers/Communications Workers of America (IUE-CWA) and the United Electrical workers union that struck at 48 GE plants in 23 states around the country last week in the first national strike at GE since 1969.

At issue in the planned two-day strike on January 14 and 15 was GE's outrageous move to raise the amount workers pay for health insurance costs--five months before the national contract expires on June 15.

While the police claim that Rodger's death was an "accident," GE has certainly created the climate where "accidents" will happen. During another two-day strike at GE in Lynn, Mass., last November, at least two picketing workers were hit by scab cars.

The mainstream media reported little about Rodgers, as if the life she sacrificed for this struggle for affordable health care had no value at all. But to her family, coworkers and union sisters and brothers around the country, Rodgers' death was a terrible blow.

Rodgers, a 40-year-old single mother of three, had been working at GE in Louisville for eight years making parts for dishwashers. She and her daughters had just moved into a new home with a bigger backyard, which required her to work double shifts to pay the bills.

Her family told local media that Rodgers was "a spirited woman who enjoyed life and worked hard to support her children" and she coached softball and cheerleading teams at her daughters' school. She was also a proud union activist.

Her daughter, Amanda, told the Louisville Courier-Journal that her mother was "excited" to go to the picket line in the middle of a freezing cold night. "She felt very strongly about the union." Her coworkers remembered her as a hard worker and a strong union activist. "The lady was out here doing something she believed in," coworker Dave Riddle told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. "Rising health care in America is putting the crunch on everybody, and it cost her life."

In Louisville, the union distributed black armbands to picketers and sent cards to her family. In Lynn, at a GE aircraft engine plant, workers put black electrical tape on their buttons and had a half an hour of silence on the picket line in Rodgers memory.

Other unions came out to show their respect for the cause Rodgers gave her life for. The California Nurses Association, a union that's faced the health care crisis on the frontlines, released a moving statement of solidarity: "It is a disgrace that workers, like Kjeston Michelle Rodgers, are forced by their employers to fight to prevent their health insurance from being stolen from them and their families."

As we go into these struggles, we will not forget the life of Michelle Rodgers. "Anything would make her laugh," said Rodger's 19-year-old daughter Amanda. "She just worked for us constantly."

How GE declared war on its unions

THE DEATH of GE striker Kjeston Michelle Rodgers is one more indication of a new, aggressive mood in corporate America. Emboldened by the Bush administration's willingness to impose Taft-Hartley against locked-out West Coast dockworkers, as well as a recession environment, GE's posture has been to escalate the confrontation in preparation for the national contract negotiations in June.

As "GE Workers United"--the coordinated bargaining committee of the 14 unions at GE--explained last week to members, the company told the union that the January 1 health care increases were only one-third of what the company wants from workers, and that "they will be coming for the other two-thirds in the upcoming contract."

At every step, GE has ratcheted up the confrontation. In last week's strike, GE immediately sought injunctions in the New York State Supreme Court to unblock gates at the Schenectady, N.Y., plant. GE is still pursuing injunctions in the New York state courts against strikers who allegedly blocked facilities last week, in order to "set legal groundwork for the future" according to the Toronto Star.

And there are indications that in the event or threat of a national strike in June, GE would ask Bush to impose a cooling-off period under the anti-labor Taft Hartley Act. Since defense-related sales account for 2-3 percent of GE's annual revenue, the Bush would likely claim that any threat of strike is a "threat" to national security.

Unfortunately, the IUE-CWA has already given ground on this issue. Lauren Asplen, an IUE-CWA spokeswoman, told Reuters that if a strike were to happen during a war with Iraq, the union "would not pull workers from factory floors that make defense-related products such as fighter jet engines."

But increasing numbers of workers at GE are beginning to see that fighting back and standing together is the only way forward. Phil Kindler, a union worker who walked the picket line outside GE's jet engine plant in Lynn, Mass., told the press he expects the company to take a hard-line stance when contract negotiations begin this spring. "I believe we'll be striking in June because of those negotiations," said Kindler, a 24-year veteran of GE.

"This is just a warm-up for what's coming," said Gary Boggs, who picketed outside the Louisville plant. Boggs takes seven medications for diabetes and arthritis and said the higher co-payments would cost him an extra $800 a year in prescription costs. "I think it's going to be ugly," he said. "One man's pension [former CEO Jack Welch's] would have paid for all the union members' medical increases."

"We're making a statement, but we understand it's not just us going through this," said Alex Brown, a GE worker in Lynn. "There are lots of people out there who work full time with no insurance. There's something broken when a company as rich as GE tries to pass on costs and asks those who can least afford to pay."

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