Some GE Bargaining
History You Should Know
With National Contract negotiations almost upon us, it’s 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 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, IAM, USWA, SMW, IBT, UA, NABET, IFPTE, IBFO and AFTRA. 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 1930’s and the 1940’s, 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 others.
In the late 1940’s, 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-1950’s, 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 GE’s 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 1960’s 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 has the opportunity at one or more subcommittee 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.
This year on February 13, a subcommittee of representatives from several CBC unions met to discuss a variety of proposals. The subcommittee reported to the CBC Steering Committee meeting held on March 2, in Washington, D.C., which discussed the proposals, and with a few modifications, adopted them as the CBC contract demands for the upcoming negotiations. The UE National Contract proposals, which will take into important consideration the CBC proposals, will be finalized at the Conference Board meeting on April 2, and then sent to UE-GE locals for discussion and ratification.
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 first three weeks of bargaining there will be two negotiating tables, the “UE table” and “ IUE/CWA” table, which meet separately. However, during this period the unions will be in close communication, and as noted above, representatives of the UE, and IUE/CWA, as well as other CBC unions will have bargainers at both tables. For the past several sets of negotiations, UE Int’l. Representative Chris Townsend has represented UE at the IUE/CWA table, and will do so again this year. No tentative agreements will take place, however, during these three weeks.
In the last week of the negotiations before the Contract expires, a “small table”, comprised of eight representatives of the CBC unions having the most GE members will negotiate with the Company and is empowered to conclude tentative agreements with GE on substantive bargaining issues. UE small table participants, General President John Hovis and GE Conference Board Secretary Steve Tormey, will be joined by representatives of the IUE/CWA, IBEW, UAW, and IAM. In addition, since the 1980’s, two “large table” subcommittees, one dealing primarily with pension and insurance issues, and the other with contract language, also meet with GE representatives during the last week, to emphasize key issues of concern, and to give support to the union bargainers at the small table.
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.