Some GE Bargaining
History You Should Know
AN UPDATED VERSION OF
THIS ARTICLE IS AVAILABLE HERE
With National Contract negotiations almost upon us, its a good time to review some bargaining history, as well as to explain how negotiations for a new contract will be conducted. UE-GE National Contract negotiations take place every three years in New York City, a considerable distance from most GE plant locations. In addition, many other unions through the Coordinated Bargaining Committee (CBC) of GE unions, participate in the bargaining. All of this can make the negotiating process confusing to many GE workers.
Accordingly, we are reprinting an article written some years ago by former UE General Secretary-Treasurer Amy Newell which we have updated, to provide some historical background, and to answer many of the commonly asked questions of GE workers about national bargaining, the CBC, and other issues.
The Coordinated Bargaining
Committee of GE Unions
What is the CBC?
The GE Coordinated Bargaining Committee (CBC) is comprised of 13 unions which represent GE workers. These are the UE, IUE-CWA, IBEW, UAW, PACE, USWA, SMW, IBT, AFGW, UA, NABET, IFPTE and IBFO. Of all the unions in the CBC only two the UE and IUE-CWA have national agreements (as opposed to local contracts) with General Electric. The CBC is a way for the unions that represent GE workers to coordinate their work on behalf of their members. It allows the different unions to exchange information systematically, to coordinate their bargaining proposals, and to work together to win the best possible contract settlements from GE.
It is important to remember that the CBC does not negotiate with GE per se and does not have a union contract with GE. Each union negotiates its own contract.
The CBC operates by consensus among the various unions. The CBC does not make any decisions that are binding on the unions involved. Each union maintains its independence and its right, if it chooses, to do something different from what the other unions in the CBC decide to do. However, the CBC assures that all unions at least know what the others are doing with regard to the negotiations. During the past several sets of negotiations with GE, it has in fact worked out that the UE, the IUE-CWA, and other unions have concluded the negotiations by making the same recommendations to their members.
Some Bargaining History
During the 1930s and the 1940s, all GE workers were united in one union the UE. Whether contract negotiations resulted in a settlement or a strike (like the nationwide strike of 1946, when UE joined with other CIO unions in other mass industries around the demand for a common wage increase), GE workers benefited from their ability to act as one against GE. As a result, the contract and conditions of GE workers were comparable to, and in some ways better than, those in other major industries such as auto, steel and rubber, and others.
In the late 1940s, GE set out to destroy this unity of GE workers. Taking advantage of the McCarthy period and the cold war hysteria being promoted at that time, GE tried to destroy UE under the banner of fighting "communism." Their real target, of course, was not communism but the unity of GE workers. Unfortunately, the unity of the CIO was also undermined during this period and other unions jumped in to help weaken UE by sanctioning the IUE and by raiding the UE. GE also got lots of help from right-wing politicians and every other anti-labor group in the U.S.
By the mid-1950s, when the dust had settled, GE had not destroyed UE but they had achieved their main objective: destroying the unity of GE workers. Instead of facing a nationwide workforce united in one union, GE now faced a workforce divided into dozens of different unions. GE could play one union off against another, and no single union had the strength to gain the improvements that GE workers needed. The possibility of a strike by one union was not much of a threat to GE when they knew that the members of the other unions would be working.
GE had a field day, instituted "take-it-or-leave-it" bargaining, or "Boulwarism" (named for GEs chief anti-union strategist) and essentially dictated the terms of six consecutive national agreements. The wages and benefits of GE workers fell well behind the workers in and other major industries where the workers had stayed united in one union. By the late 1960s the situation for GE workers was desperate while the Company was profiting handsomely from the disunity they helped to create.
This sad state of affairs came to an end with the 102-day national strike against GE in 1969, when virtually every unionized GE plant was shut down. The negotiations, strike, and eventual settlement were coordinated informally between UE and the other unions. It was the first time since 1946 that GE had faced a strike by all of its unions, and the result was a tremendous breakthrough for GE workers. After the strike, UE continued to work closely with the other unions and then officially joined the CBC prior to the 1973 negotiations. All negotiations since the 1969 strike have achieved progress for GE workers and demonstrated the value of the CBC. While it is not the same as all GE workers belonging to one Union, the CBC is certainly a big improvement from the days when different unions were each trying to tackle a huge corporation like GE on their own.
How The CBC Works
The Steering Committee is composed of one representative from each Union in the CBC. The CBC Steering Committee is the body with primary responsibility for coordinating the work of the CBC and the member unions.
Contract Proposals: Prior to the start of negotiations, each CBC union sends representatives to a series of CBC meetings to discuss contract proposals. Each union, in their separate negotiations with GE, is free to submit whatever proposals their members want, but through the CBC we try to achieve unity on the key bargaining issues. A union that feels strongly about a particular bargaining goal will try to convince the other unions to adopt it as a proposal so that the union will face GE as a united front on the issue.
UE has played an important role in this process since joining the CBC. For example, in 1960, during the years of disunity, GE had succeeded in taking away the cost-of-living clause from all GE workers. UE, more than any other union, constantly raised this issue within the CBC and eventually built enough unity that the unions were able to reestablish COLA and then improve the formula in subsequent negotiations. The same holds true of the role UE played in winning the dental plan in 1979, and on a variety of issues since then.
Negotiations: During the national negotiations, only the UE and IUE-CWA National Agreements are actually being formally negotiated. However, the other unions send representatives as a sign of unity, and they are given input into the discussions because the UE and IUE-CWA national settlements set the pattern for what the other unions will receive in their local negotiations. For several years all CBC unions have insisted, and GE has agreed, that the basic settlement with the UE and IUE-CWA be extended to all other CBC unions whose contracts expire at or near the same time as the two national contracts.
For the most part, the UE and IUE-CWA Negotiations Committees meet separately with GE until the last week of the negotiations. However, through the CBC, the unions are constantly exchanging information on the progress of their negotiations. Neither union makes any tentative agreements with GE without notifying the other and the CBC of their intentions.
In the last several sets of negotiations, dating to the 1970s, in the last week before the contract was due to expire, a "small table" would meet with the Company. This committee was composed of representatives from five different CBC unions with the most GE members, and was empowered to conclude any tentative agreements with GE on substantive bargaining issues. In addition, since the 1980s two "large table" subcommittees, one dealing with contract language and the other dealing with pension and insurance issues, would also meet with Company representatives during the final week of bargaining to emphasize key issues of concern.
This arrangement will change this time around. The IUE-CWA has elected to keep their bargaining table intact for the entire period of the negotiations. The full IUE-CWA committee will meet with GE until the June 15 expiration date. Other CBC unions may have one representative to participate as well. As a result of the IUE-CWAs decision, UE will also maintain our table through to the end. We expect that certain other CBC unions will also participate at the UE table. We will do our best to insure that the two tables remain in close communication with each other.
When we reach the conclusion of the bargaining, and have the final proposal, we will report on the details of any company offer to the CBC Steering Committee for discussion. Thereafter, each union follows its own procedure for voting on a contract settlement. In UE, the Negotiating Committee makes a recommendation to the full UE-GE Conference Board, which in turn discusses it and votes on whether to recommend it to the rank-and-file union members at every UE-GE local who have the final say whether the contract proposal is accepted or rejected.