By BRUCE SCHREINER, Associated Press Writer
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) - A picketing worker was struck and killed by a police car Tuesday as thousands of General Electric Co. employees across the country began a two-day strike to protest higher health insurance costs.
Union leaders said about 20,000 members of the International Union of Electronic Workers/Communications Workers of America and the Electrical Workers union took part in the walkout at 48 locations in 23 states. The affected plants manufacture everything from consumer appliances to jet engines.
About 200 workers and supporters rallied in the bitter cold outside GE plants in Cleveland and Youngstown, Ohio.
A few hours into the strike, Kjeston "Michelle" Rodgers, 40, was hit outside a GE plant in Louisville as the eight-year employee walked with a picket sign before daybreak. The car was from the police department in nearby Hollow Creek, officials said.
"The lady was out here doing something she believed in," said Dave Riddle, who was picketing at the same plant. "Rising health care in America is putting the crunch on everybody, and it cost her her life."
Rodgers had been carrying a picket sign in a dimly lit area between two gates at the plant. Other details of the accident, including whether she had been walking in the street, were still being investigated, said Louisville police spokeswoman Helene Kramer.
It is the first national strike at GE since 1969, when workers walked off the job for about 14 weeks.
GE spokesman Gary Sheffer said at company headquarters in Fairfield, Conn., that about 17,500 employees were involved in the strike. He said the company was meeting the needs of its customers.
"But that's not the company's focus today," he said. "The company's focus is on the tragic accident in Louisville and the loss of a colleague. Everyone at GE extends our heartfelt sympathy to the family. We're deeply saddened by this tragic accident."
GE recently raised certain co-payments for employees participating in a health care plan by about $200 per employee. Since 1999, GE's health care costs have risen 45 percent, to $1.4 billion in 2002, the company said.
Union officials said the co-pay increases will cost the average worker an additional $300 to $400 a year and that GE is posting record profits and does not need additional payments from employees.
In Cleveland, about 100 workers and supporters picketed outside the Nela Park GE Center. A person dressed as the Grinch from the Dr. Seuss book attempted to deliver a "Grinch award" to company officials, but protesters were not allowed inside.
"If GE was a company that was barely hanging on by its fingernails, obviously, we'd have to have our heads in the sand if they came to us and said 'Look, we've got to share the pain,' and we said no," said national IUE-CWA President Ed Fire, who attended the Cleveland protest.
Seth Rosen, an IUE-CWA spokesman, called the two-day strike "the strongest statement workers can make to let GE know we are not going to tolerate this."
Rosen said there was a similar gathering of about 100 workers outside the Austintown GE plant near Youngstown.