LYNN, Mass.–General Electric (GE) retiree Peter Dow once dreamed that when he retired he would take trips to Florida or go camping with his grandchildren in New Hampshire. But, as he told the Boston Globe, his pension of $850 a month leaves him struggling to stay afloat. With his co-pay for his GE health plan and prescription drugs for diabetes costing him $160 a month, Dow has to live in a basement room in his childrenâ€™s house and has recently had to take a job as a crossing guard.
When Charles Kokinos retired from his job as an engine inspector at General Electric in 1972, his pension was $275 a month. Today, at age 86, he gets $572 a month. Kokinos recently had to buy his own private health insurance when his GE-sponsored health plan cut the doctor who treats his prostate cancer. His new insurance is twice as expensive and will eat up a quarter of his pension.
The fact that GE workers have no protection against inflation is one of the main issues at stake in national contract negotiations between GE and the IUE-CWA, the industrial division of the Communications Workers of America. But for the 16,000 workers across the country whose contract with GE expires June 15, fighting for better pensions is only part of their struggle.
Other issues include job security, health care and organizing rights. Years of plant closings, anti-union harassment and attacks on benefits while top executives raked in millions and profits boomed have created enormous bitterness among workers.
GE is the worldâ€™s largest manufacturer of jet engines and gas turbines, raking in $15 billion in profits last year. And yet, when it comes to paying retirees a decent pension, GE has the nerve to cry poverty.
Former CEO Jack Welch has no complaints about his pension–which pays him $10.8 million annually, plus stocks and perks. And anyone who serves on GEâ€™s Board of Directors for five years or more is guaranteed a pension benefit five times greater than an average GE worker with 30 years service!
In truth, GE makes money on its pension fund! Since 1988, GEâ€™s pension fund has been so fat–itâ€™s the second largest pension fund in the U.S.–that the company has not had to put a single penny into it, while workers have to pay into it every year. In 2002, GE took $1.6 billion in profits from the pension fund.
Job security is another key issue in the contract–at a corporation that has ruthlessly slashed 150,000 jobs and closed plants in the past 20 years. “Your employees realize that your insatiable appetite to maximize profits will come at the expense of their jobs,” said IUE-CWA/GE Conference Board Chairman Art Smith. “No business or plant, regardless of how profitable or productive is secure.”
The union is also demanding that GE respect workersâ€™ rights to organize, by demanding that the company reinstate two workers at GE-owned Johnson Technology who were fired because of their union activity. So far the company is refusing.
“At its core, General Electric has always been and remains anti-union,” said IUE-CWA President Edward Fire during negotiations. “At long last, this issue must be dealt with and resolved in these negotiations…I canâ€™t see any contract proposal being accepted that does not address these long-standing sore spots.” And workers mean it.
When GE tried to open the contract in January and attack health care, workers staged the first national strike since 1969. “There will be no givebacks in the new IUE-CWA GE three-year contract,” Fire stated. “If General Electric continues to insist that IUE-CWA members accept the massive concessions in health care cost shifting that GE has talked about, our members are prepared and will strike.”
The fact that GE is trying to get workers to pay more for their health insurance is particularly outrageous since GE is now a profitable player in the health care industry. GEâ€™s sales of medical equipment brought in $1.8 billion in 2001. And its “side business” as an insurance company covers 700,000 people. ” GE is not a victim of the health care business,” said Jeff Crosby, president of IUE/CWA Local 201 in Lynn. “GE is the health care business.”
The unionâ€™s aggressive stance is a welcome change in the labor movement. Steps are already being taken to build solidarity in the event of a strike. On June 5, GE workers will take part in a nationwide day of action for universal health care. And on June 7, thousands of workers and supporters are expected to participate in a massive march and rally here. On June 12, the 14 unions that make up the Coordinated Bargaining Council at GE will be holding a rally in New York to show that GE workers are standing together in this fight.