A planned increase in health care expenses could trigger the first national strike since 1969 against General Electric Co. as soon as next month, leaders of the company's largest union said.
Under the International Union of Electronic Workers-Communication Workers of America's current national contract, which expires June 15, its 14,000 members at GE are free to strike once the Jan. 1 increase takes effect. In October, the IUE-CWA, which represents more than half of about 25,000 U.S. union workers at GE, gave its leadership the authority to call a national strike.
It would be the first national strike at GE since 1969. The membership of the union works in most of GE's business segments, which include jet engine, light bulb, plastics, and appliance production.
GE plans co-payment increases on Jan. 1 of up to 15 percent to cover a broad range of services, including prescription drugs and hospital visits, for employees enrolled in the GE Health Care Preferred Plan. About 70 percent of GE's U.S. employees, including the IUE-CWA workers, are enrolled in the plan.
Edward Fire, president of the IUE-CWA, said no specific strike date has been set. But he did not rule out taking action in January. He said negotiations for a new national contract will begin in May, but he does not want to wait until the last minute for the union to go on strike. He fears GE will try to win more concessions, asking union workers to shoulder even more of their health care costs. "Unless they say, 'We're not going to make your members and retirees choke down (the health care increases),' I don't see any way to avoid a strike," Mr. Fire said.
As health care costs skyrocket, GE estimates it will pay about $2,350 more per worker in 2003, on average, than it did in 1999. GE currently spends about $1.4 billion a year on health care costs for employees and retirees, the company has said. (Reuters)
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