LYNN — Members of the International Union of Electrical Workers (IUE) Local 201 in Lynn have been told to “prepare for a strike” after their rejection of a proposed labor contract with General Electric on Tuesday shocked the company and was affirmed by a collective nationwide vote of the IUE-CWA (Communications Workers of America) union.
The Lynn union’s vote could have been overturned if the majority of IUE-CWA sites across the country approved the four-year deal. It’s the first time the union has collectively voted to reject a national contract with the company since 1969. The current deal expired on June 23.
“Every contract we have been asked to give up more and Lynn has obviously had enough,” said Adam Kaszynski, IUE Local 201 president, which represents 1,253 employees at General Electric’s River Works Plant in Lynn. “This contract was not just about wages. It was the constant giving back that GE (has) asked (for and) the constant cuts they put on our backs when we’re the ones generating a profit for this company.”
Eleven unions, representing 6,100 GE workers across the country, which represents a fraction of the company’s global workforce, voted Tuesday.
The rejection will likely send the two sides back to the table for negotiations, but Kaszynski said the next step is organizing its membership to prepare for a strike should one become necessary. Lynn’s GE plant last rejected a contract in 2011, which was overturned by a collective vote, and last went on strike in 1986. Union membership unanimously voted to authorize one before negotiations began, he said.
Kaszynski said the union took issue with an increase in healthcare premiums in the contract, which would have marked a 64 percent increase since 2011 and the lack of a cost of living increase. In addition, although the contract called for hourly wage increases, he said the union hasn’t seen a percentage base wage increase since 2010. The union also took issue with giving up defined pension benefits for employees over the last three contracts.
Under the proposed contract, employees would receive three general wage increases totaling $1.80 per hour, two accelerated cash payments totaling $3,000 and a ratification bonus of $1,500. According to General Electric, based on an average wage of $31 per hour, that would result in an additional $10,450 cash compensation over the length of the contract.
“Today, the IUE-CWA infomed GE that although a majority of its members approved the four-year national labor contract, its Conference Board rules resulted in the proposed agreement being turned down,” said GE spokesman Richard Gorham in a statement. “We strongly believe the contract is a good package for employees, and a majority approval vote of IUE-CWA membership reflects that. GE and IUE-CWA leaders are evaluating options for moving forward.”
It is likely that subsequent discussions will take place as GE is certainly willing to fulfill its obligation to bargain, the company said.
On Wednesday afternoon, IUE-CWA, the largest union at GE, issued a statement that although a majority of its members voted to approve the contract, GE Conference Board rules call for per capita, or block voting, which resulted in a collective rejection of the national contract. For instance, a “no” vote from Lynn resulted in 1,253 “no” votes, no matter what the final tally from Local 201 was. Members from another large IUE site, Local 301, in Schenectady, N.Y., also voted down the deal.
Rob, a GE worker at the steam turbine plant in Schenectady who declined to give his last name for job protection reasons, said the wage increase wasn’t the problem among workers. It was the increase in healthcare premiums, which is zero percent in the first year, but 5.9 percent in each of the final three years. There will also be a new charge for vision premiums, which used to be free.
In addition, he said there have been about 500 people lost at the Schenectady plant in the last year and “people are just fed up.” Workers at his plant are awaiting a text message from union leadership on what their next steps are, he said.
“It’s not just the company people are mad at. It’s some of the union officials too,” said Rob, who’s been working at the plant for seven years. “We’d rather see a wage increase and better health insurance, and we keep getting these bonus checks instead. Everybody was pretty mad to see this contract came back. People were glad it did not pass because nobody liked it at all.”
Nick Anastasopoulos, a partner at Boston-based Mirick O’Connell, is a management-side labor attorney who represents employers, but doesn’t represent either side in this instance. In similar situations, when a union turns a labor contract down, he said employers typically sit back and wait for a union’s internal processes to play themselves out.
If that doesn’t happen in a way where both parties reach an agreement, a third party may be brought in to facilitate discussions and return to the main bargaining table. There’s no obligation for the employer to improve their last offer, but they might offer to move some things around in the contract without any profit loss to the company, such as reducing wage increases to reduce healthcare costs based on what issues the union had with the proposed offer, Anastasopoulos said.
General Electric and union negotiators have been bargaining for 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. The current contract expired three weeks after negotiations began in Cincinnati.
Local 201’s national bargaining delegates voted to accept the tentative agreement on June 24, which was followed by a 201 Executive Policy Board in favor of the agreement two days later. But on June 27, 201’s Stewards Council overwhelmingly rejected the agreement by a 30-3 vote.