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 Tuesday, 14 January, 2003, 20:10 GMT
Mass walk-out at US industrial giant
GE strikers
The strikers are facing freezing conditions
About 20,000 workers at industrial giant General Electric (GE) have begun a two-day strike over a benefits dispute.

It is the first strike at the world's largest industrial conglomerate for 30 years.

One striker in Kentucky was hit and killed by a police car as she walked towards the picket line in a poorly lit area.

The strike is affecting 48 locations in 23 states, including GE Power Systems in Schenectady and the aircraft engine plant in Massachusetts, union officials said.

Unhealthy costs...

The dispute between the unions and the company centres on GE's plans to increase worker contributions to a healthcare plan.

Like most large American companies, GE provides healthcare as a special and valuable benefit for its workers.

However, the rising cost of healthcare - and particularly of prescription drugs - is outpacing the rate of US inflation.

GE's total healthcare costs have risen by 45% to $1.4bn since 1999, according to the firm.

"It is difficult for businesses to stay globally competitive while sustaining the double-digit percentage increases that we have seen in recent years and expect for the foreseeable future," said Bill Contaly, GE's senior vice president for human resources.

... but profits still healthy

Union officials say the increases will cost the average worker up to $400 more a year.

And they are angered that GE is demanding additional payments from workers when it is already posting record profits.

If we don't show some kind of reaction, the company would be a little more bold about what they would not give us

Bob Reynolds, GE worker

Union officials say the strike has closed every unionised GE facility in the US. The company is "shut down tighter than a drum," Electronics Workers Union president Edward Fire told the BBC's World Business Report.

However, a company spokesman said that the strike involved only 5% of the workforce.

GE said it did not expect the strike to have an impact on its first quarter results.

The firm was the US's biggest company for many years, but has since been overtaken by software giant Microsoft.

Union anger

The strike is the first since 1969 and involves around 5% of GE's global workforce.

The workers are employed in a variety of GE's vast businesses, including jet engines, appliances, medical equipment and light bulbs. GE also owns the NBC Television network and a big financial services business.

"If we don't show some kind of reaction, the company would be a little more bold about what they would not give us," said Bob Reynolds, who works at the jet engine plant in Lynn, which makes jet engines for US military helicopters and fighter jets.

Officials from the International Union of Electronic Workers-Communications Workers of America (IUE-CWA) said a short strike now might stave off a longer national walkout in the summer.

State action

It is not only companies who are facing up to the problems of rising costs.

Nine US states and the District of Columbia have announced plans for a non-profit organisation to manage their prescription plans.

They want to hold down the cost of medicines for millions of employees and poor who receive Medicaid benefit.

Christine Owens at the AFL-CIO, the American trades union umbrella organisation, told the BBC's World Business Report that there was an increasing number of people who could not afford insurance.

"It's a cost many workers and their families cannot afford," she said.

  WATCH/LISTEN
  ON THIS STORY
  Edward Fire, Electronics Workers Union president
"The strike has shutdown every Union facility in General Electric nationwide"
  GE's company spokesman Gary Sheffer
"The company's healthcare costs have gone up 45% since 1999"
  Christine Owens, AFL-CIO
""It's a cost many workers and their families cannot afford."
See also:

07 Jan 03 | Business
21 Nov 02 | Business
30 Jun 02 | Business
15 Apr 02 | Business
20 Feb 02 | Business
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