Wednesday, June 18, 2003

GE contract raises wages, bumps up insurance costs

The Associated Press

STAMFORD, Conn. - General Electric Co.'s proposed four-year contract with its two largest unions calls for annual wage increases of up to 3 percent and increases in health care costs paid by workers, a union leader said Tuesday.

The pact would cover about 24,000 workers, including 2,000 at GE Aircraft Engines in Evendale.

The tentative agreement, reached Sunday just hours before the previous contract was set to expire, calls for a wage increase of 3 percent the first year, 2.5 percent in each of the next two years and 3 percent the fourth year, said Ed Fire, president of the International Union of Electronic Workers/Communications Workers of America.

By the end of the contract, the typical GE worker will make more than $25 per hour, Fire said. The typical unionized employee now makes about $21, according to the union.

"There will be substantial real wage growth over the life of this contract," said Fire, who is recommending the contract proposal be ratified.

Gary Sheffer, a GE spokesman, declined to comment Tuesday on details of the tentative agreement.

Health care costs were a major sticking point during negotiations. Thousands of GE employees had walked off the job for two days in January to protest higher health care co-payments that took effect Jan. 1.

Fire acknowledged that the proposed contract calls for increases in health care premiums paid by workers. He said by the end of the contract, workers will continue to pay about 18 percent of the costs and the company will pay the balance.

GE, which has said health care costs have been rising substantially, wanted to shift the amount of health care costs paid by employees to 30 percent, Fire said.

A source familiar with the proposed contract, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the health care premiums will increase for employees on Jan. 1, 2004, and again in 2006. A single employee making between $37,500 and $50,000 would pay a contribution next year of $4.49 per week, up from $2.96 now, the source said. A married worker making the same pay would contribute $11.78, compared with $8.71 now, the source said.

The talks with GE - the world's largest company by market capitalization - were closely watched because they could affect many companies wrestling with rising health care costs.

The contract, with the IUE/CWA and the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE), would apply to about 24,400 workers at the two unions and a number of local unions at sites across the country.

The employees work at plants that make aircraft engines, appliances, locomotives, medical equipment, power turbines and other products.

Union leaders are meeting this week to review the contract proposals and submit them to union members for ratification votes, which are expected this week and next.

The UE-GE Conference Board, composed of union locals nationwide, voted unanimously Tuesday in New York to recommend acceptance to UE locals of the tentative agreement.

The UE represents about 3,000 GE employees, while the IEU/CWA represents about 13,000 GE employees.

GE stock fell 14 cents Tuesday to close at $31.20 on the New York Stock Exchange.

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