A different sort of strike at GE: `respect' not wages is the issue

At a time when labor unions around the United States are in virtual retreat, a strike by General Electric workers here seems almost to be a throwback. The issue is not wages -- but ``respect,'' union officials say. Striking on an issue of principle is, to say the least, uncommon these days. Last year saw fewer strikes than any time in recent memory.

Exceptions to the trend, such as GE's Lynn strike or the Hormel strike in Austin, Minn., may not be typical, yet they are significant, says Hervey Juris, a professor of human resources at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management. Both instances, he says, illustrate management's new willingness to press its gains after decades of virtually rubberstamping union demands.

Nearly 2,000 union members walked away from their jobs Wednesday at General Electric's turbine factory here, raising the number of strikers to 8,500. The last major walkout at GE's Lynn facilities was in 1979. That year 3,500 workers struck the company. Continuing negotiations and a vote by rank-and-file members on whether to continue the walkout were expected after press time.

GE's recent problems began innocuously enough when union officials tried to resolve the suspension of a shop steward at GE's aircraft engine factory. But they were unable to settle the apparently minor issue, and it evolved into a strike by some 3,700 aircraft engine workers Feb. 21 and expanded to include four neighboring plants.

General Electric is a multibillion-dollar giant whose products run the gamut from light bulbs to locomotives to industrial robots; in addition, it recently merged with RCA. Last year the company had sales of $28.3 billion.

Since 1981, GE has closed a number of plants and tried to streamline its operations. Its defense contracts at the Lynn facilities produce about $1.2 billion in jet engines for the US Air Force's F-16 fighter and other aircraft. Yet, a strike of four to eight weeks probably would not dent the company's earnings by more than a penny or two, says Gail Landis, an analyst with Sanford C. Bernstein & Co.

GE workers are frustrated enough with management to forego pay and benefits that are better than the industry average, industry analysts say. Yet the strikers, used to getting $7 to $13 an hour at work, will receive only about $60 a week in strike pay from the union. Still, the union contends it has good reason to strike -- including a backlog of more than 300 grievances yet to be resolved and 75 to 80 such cases that have gone to a lengthy arbitration process. The union says job flaps between foremen and workers need to be settled on the shop floor, not by filing a formal grievance.

``Up until last year or so, it was fairly infrequent for a shop steward to be suspended, but we've had eight to 10 suspended in the last year,'' says Kevin Mahar, president of Local 201 of the International Union of Electronic, Electrical, Technical, Salaried, and Machine Workers.

``The whole point of grievance procedure is to solve problems on the shop floor before it causes violence or disrupts productions. If what the company is trying to do is abuse shop stewards, the union members are going to feel powerless and begin to ask themselves why they're even paying dues.''

But while Mr. Mahar says pressure on the union's shop stewards has increased since a new union leadership was elected last year, company spokesman William Kennedy disagrees.

``We are disappointed the strike has been expanded to the steam turbine plant,'' Mr. Kennedy says. ``The company has already put forward solutions to all the issues raised by the union, and we think the strike should be ended, not expanded.''

Labor experts watching the strike from the sidelines say they believe management may be willing to ``play out'' its hand to test a union -- 80 percent of whose members have never experienced the hardships of a strike.

``GE has long used the strategy of divide and conquer to deal with its unions,'' says James Green, director of labor studies at the University of Massachusetts in Boston.

``The company is very unhappy with the new union leadership. . . . There appears to be a lot of support within the union for the strike right now. But if it drags on, and if there are any divisions in the ranks, it's going to bring those out.''

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