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River Works looms large at GE-union contract talks

General Electric assembler Paul Tucker works on the development version of the T408 engine which powers a heavy-lift helicopter set for delivery to the Marine Corps in late summer. (Louise Michaud)

LYNN — General Electric and union negotiators are bargaining wages, healthcare and retirement at a time when the firm’s aviation business, including the River Works, are the bright spot on GE’s gloomy financial landscape.

With a four-year contract between GE and 11 unions set to expire on June 23, contract talks in Cincinnati entered their third week on Monday. Negotiations on behalf of 6,100 workers include 1,253 International Union of Electric Workers (IUE) Local 201 employees at the River Works.

Elected six months ago by his members to be 201’s president, Adam Kaszynski is watching the bargaining closely to see if it produces an across-the-board wage increase.

“That will determine if we view it as a good contract or a bad contract,” Kaszynski said.

GE spokesman Richard Gorham said the company and unions have successfully negotiated 14 consecutive national contracts and many more local contracts over the past four decades.

Contract talks continue against a backdrop of tough times for GE. According to a company statement, GE stock prices plummeted from a 2016 high point of more than $30 a share to $10.16 on January 31.

The company has cut costs, reduced stockholder dividends and reorganized.

“GE is committed to reaching a fair contract that provides good wages and meaningful benefits while addressing the unique challenge we face today to return GE to a position of strength,” Gorham said.

Aviation remains GE’s strong point with U.S. Rep. Seth Moulton announcing earlier this month that a defense spending bill passed by Congress includes more than $200 million for the Improved Turbine Engine Program (ITEP). The next-generation military helicopter engines will be built at the River Works.

River Works employment has also surged since 2016 after the company and unions negotiated a market-base wage agreement. The pact spurred a multi-year hiring effort.

Gorham said market-base included new company employees among the 400 hires. Not so, said Kaszynski, who called market-base “back filled” job vacancies but did not add new union jobs.

He said union employees haven’t seen a general wage increase boosting their base salary since the contract negotiated in 2011.

Without a general increase, he warned union workers face wage stagnation coupled with a potential increase in health insurance costs setting up a formula for a reduction in their standard of living.

A company statement said GE offers a consumer-directed health care plan similar to ones offered by 95 percent of other large employers. The company structures employee health care so that lower-wage workers pay less for health care.

Union members want to see employee health care contributions reduced. A top-tier health plan includes a nearly $9,000 worker contribution, said Kaszynski.

GE’s statement said the company’s retirement negotiating position ” …is designed to ensure employees can continue to prepare for retirement with company support.”

Local 201’s Kevin Mahar is in Cincinnati focusing, according to the General Electric Workers United website, on retiree support and advocacy, including the “cumbersome” process of applying for retiree benefits.

The last contract negotiated between GE and its unions in 2015 paid $15,500 to each union employee over the contract life, according to the company statement, including lump sum payments; an hourly rate increase, and cost of living hikes.

“We look forward to continuing this positive track record,” said Gorham.

Both sides in the negotiations are working toward the current contract expiration date. Union employees will vote most likely in July to ratify or reject a tentative agreement.

“Ideally we will have a fair contract by June 23. It really depends on GE,” Kaszynski said.

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