Today in labor history: 20,000 GE workers strike over health care

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On Jan. 14, 2003, nearly 20,000 General Electric workers went out on strike at 48 plants in 33 states, to protest the company's move to shift health care costs onto the workers. It was the first national strike against General Electric in 33 years. Members of the United Electrical Workers (UE) and the International Union of Electrical Workers (IUE/CWA) conducted a two-day strike, in many cases braving freezing temperatures and snowy conditions to hold picket lines.

GE had announced its intent to substantially increase, before the end of the union contract, the costs to members and pre-65 retirees enrolled in its "managed care" health plan for prescription drugs, medical specialists, and emergency room care, as well as introducing for the first time a co-pay for in-hospital admissions. About 65 percent of GE workers were enrolled in that plan. The increases would affect the families of nearly 145,000 active and retired union members. A contract provision allowed the company to seek such mid-contract increases, but GE had never invoked it before.

When negotiations came to impasse last July, GE announced its intent to impose the increases on January 1, 2003, even though the entire UE-GE National Agreement was up for negotiation the same year.

The unions did not expect that the two-day strike would result in GE canceling the increases. Rather as UE General President John Hovis noted, "The strike is intended to demonstrate the membership's opposition to GE's cost shifting, to exact a price from GE for its action, and to mobilize resistance to GE's stated intention to seek additional cost shifting in contract negotiations to be held later this year."

Edward Fire, IUE-CWA president, said, "GE has provoked a strike through its greed. A company that sets record profits each year - $14.1 billion in 2001 - can afford to maintain health benefits without forcing workers and retirees to pay more."

The GE strike helped put the issue of health care coverage on the national worker rights agenda.

Photo: Rank-n-file-ue.org