Labor bucks give-back trend in GE settlement

Six months ago, General Electric Company labor negotiators, looking ahead to bargaining in 1982, predicted that the year's contract settlement patterns would not follow those of the past. One GE vice-president, Frank Doyle, said he looked for union settlements ''going one way in some industries, a different way in others.''

After a number of major contract settlements earlier this year in which unions gave ground on wages, cost-of-living increases, and benefits, GE and its major unions went the ''different way'' in negotiating a tentative settlement that will provide at least 23.3 percent in wage and other gains for some 73,000 workers over the next three years.

Although the settlement with wage increases was not unexpected in the electrical manufacturing industry, it still jolted employers whose bargaining hopes have been buoyed by the moderation in other settlements. The future for many not only in electrical manufacturing but in other industries may not be as bright as employers had hoped.

The GE settlement, which still must be ratified by the unions' memberships, is sound as far as GE and its unions are concerned. The company says the terms will enable it to remain competitive. Boris Block, secretary-treasurer of UEW, said the settlement should ''pass the word along'' to other employers that the International Union of Electrical Workers (IUEW), the United Electrical Workers, and 11 other unions bargaining in the industry will ''negotiate as usual - tough.''

Perhaps more important, the GE settlement is expected to reinforce efforts by unions in other industries to resist concessionary bargaining that characterized recent contracts in in trucking, automobile, and a number of other industries. Because the unions that have given ground ordinarily set patterns for all industry, their concessions have encouraged employers generally to press for cost-cutting concessions from their weaker unions.

By 1982 standards the GE agreement reached without union saber-rattling is substantial. Wages will rise 7 percent this year, but there will be no cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) added. In the next two years, wages will go up 3 percent a year, and COLAs on an increased adjustment basis cl11will boost the take-home pay further.

Overall, wages will rise 13 percent over three years, with COLA and pay restructuring adding about 10 percent more. Total gains are expected to be between $2.10 and $2.20 an hour, about the same money increase as in the 1979 contract.

Pensions will be boosted for those still to retire and there are what the IUEW calls ''historic, precedent-setting protections'' for jobs and incomes should the introduction of robots, other forms of automation, or subcontracting of work outside GE plants endanger jobs.

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