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GE Talks With Labor Are Set To Heat Up As Deadline Nears
Jun 9, 2003
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General Electric Co.'s negotiations with unions are about to heat up as the deadline for forging new contracts draws near. The Fairfield, CT, U.S., conglomerate has until midnight June 15 to hammer out a new agreement with its two biggest unions - the International Union of Electronic Workers/Communications Workers of America and United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America, or IUE-CWA and UE.

Some other union contracts, negotiated at the local plant level, expire around the same time and tend to be based on similar terms. Talks started last month cover about 24,400 workers in GE's appliance, airplane-engines, power, medical- systems and industrial-systems operations. The first 3 weeks of bargaining were fairly calm and without surprises, as each side presented its views on key issues, representatives for GE and the unions said. GE is due to start responding to labor proposals after talks resume this week.

Each side seems to be sticking to its guns so far. When this week's series of talks let out, said Lauren Asplen, a spokeswoman for the IUE-CWA, "There was a summary on each side, (stating) where we stand - on opposite sides on each issue." The IUE-CWA has the most GE workers, about 13,000, followed by the UE, with 3, 500 members at GE. GE employs more than 315,000 people worldwide. Workers want more job security, richer wages and pension benefits, and they're fighting an increase in health-care costs, among other issues. GE, for its part, has argued that it's not immune to the global economic downturn - earnings growth has slowed after a long streak of steep growth - and it wants a deal that will keep it competitive. But the workers say that even without double-digit profit growth, GE is still faring far better than the slew of struggling companies that are losing money. "With GE, it's never been a question, in my mind, of what the company needs. It's a question of what the company wants," said UE President John Hovis. "It gives us leeway, in my mind, because they're not hurting."

If GE and the labor representatives don't reach a tentative agreement on time, the unions can decide to strike. The IUE-CWA could do so after 10 days, while the UE could do strike anytime if members vote to do so. These are the first union negotiations under new chief executive Jeffrey Immelt, and the potential for trouble appears to be greater than in past years.

In January, workers already showed they're not afraid to take action, staging their first nationwide strike since 1969 to protest an increase in their portion of health-care costs.
GE negotiator John Curtin argued that health-care costs have surged by double- digits and that GE workers have to pay a much lower share of those expenses - 19 percent - than the 30 percent its competitors demand, according to remarks on GE's Web site.

IUE-CWA President Edward Fire warned last month that workers are prepared to walk again if GE doesn't back off with demands for higher worker contribution. (Dow Jones)

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