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Working In These Times

Monday, May 2, 2011, 3:04 pm

Will Progressives Get Behind Workers Fighting to Stop Concessions at GE?

BY Mike Elk

In the wake of Gov. Scott Walker's unionbusting efforts in Wisconsin, there has been an upsurge in support for organized labor from progressives who in the past have neglected union struggles. We have seen hundreds march in the streets of cities around the country in solidarity with embattled public-sector unions.

These struggles have received such large support since, in addition to being an attack on collective bargaining, they are perceived by progressives as being an attack on the Democratic Party as well. They are also struggles that affect tens of thousands as opposed to private sector union struggles, which typically only affect a few hundred, or just a few dozen, workers in a bargaining unit.

But rebuilding strength in the private sector—6.9% of which is unionized, the sector's lowest level since 1901—will be crucial to rebuilding union strength nationwide. (While under dramatic attack, 36% of public-sector workers are organized.) Rebuilding private sector union strength will be a long, slow struggle continued one workplace at a time.

Private sector struggles, however, rarely achieve wide attention because they are often seen as local struggles—merely ancedotal footnotes of broader corporate abuse. One contract negotiation coming up, however, could be seen as a national struggle with a very political target. 15,000 workers scattered among 14 unions are set to negotiate a master contract this summer with General Electric, the largest corporation in the world.

Due to the way labor law is shaped, workers organize and bargain in units defined by one individual workplace that involves a few hundred workers. A big union victory typically involves 500 workers winning an election—but 500 workers voting to join a union doesn't seem that big of a deal to people unfamilar with the labor movement. 

This leads to media seeing private-sector union campaigns as a local struggle, despite the fact that management always see them in a national context:  if you can beat a union in one workplace, you can beat them down the line.

What GE wants from workers

Among the major concessions GE has signaled it will ask of union workers is the elimination of a defined contribution benefit pension for new employees, a move the company has already implemented for its nonunion salaried employees. Likewise, GE is signaling to the union that it will ask for the elimination of current health insurance plans in favor of lower-quality health saving accounts, a move the company has already implemented for nonunion salaried employees as well.

In addition, GE may ask some workers for a wage freeze. Since the recession began in 2007, GE threatened to close plants in Schenectady, N.Y., and Louisville, Ky., unless workers took wage concessions and adopted two-tier wage structure. Workers have vowed to resist any proposed concession by the company and have left the option of striking on the table if GE won’t agree to remove concession from the table.

These looming contract negotiations seem a prime struggle progressives in the broader community ought to rally behind.

Recently, GE received a lot of political heat when the New York Times reported that, despite making $14.2 billion in profits, the largest corporation in the United States paid zero U.S. taxes in 2010 and actually received tax credits of $3.2 billion dollars. After this was revealed, MoveOn.org launched an email campaign calling on President Obama to fire GE CEO as the head of his jobs commission.

In the email, Move On also blasted GE CEO Jeff Immelt for asking workers to take concessions during upcoming contract negotiations. Clearly, the struggle of the workers in the private sector captures the political imagination of progressives, but how much will outside progressive be involved in this labor struggle.

“I think the negotiations are key for progressives to rally behind. In spite of the fact that GE is incredibly prosperous, didn’t pay taxes last years, it still wants its workers to take cuts,” says UE-GE Conference Secretary Steve Tormey. “The company basically wants to exasperate the situation of the haves and have nots in this country. Nobody is more symbolic of the assault on workers than General Electric.”

It’s unclear how much progressives are willing to get involved in the GE contract fight. But what is clear is that it’s a perfect opportunity for progressives energized about the labor movement after a public-sector struggle in Wisconsin and other states to organize and educate themselves about a tough union battle brewing at GE.

Mike Elk wrote for In These Times and its labor blog, Working In These Times, from 2010 to 2014. He is currently a labor reporter at Politico.

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