NEW YORK -- With health care a key issue and manufacturers bracing for a hard fight, contract negotiations between the ILGWU and 45 employer organizations representing 2,000 women's apparel firms in the Northeast got under way this week.

Some 90,000 union members are involved, and most of the three-year pacts up for renewal expire on May 31.

Negotiators for the 11 affected local and regional affiliates of the ILGWU will bargain separately with employer associations but will be guided by policies established by the International Union's General Executive Board. Negotiations opened on Tuesday for the union's largest affiliate, Local 23-25, with 28,000 members, followed by others each day this week.

The union is seeking to increase employer contributions to the health and welfare funds by six percentage points to 13.5 percent of payroll; a wage increase of 16 percent over a three-year period, and a new code of conduct holding U.S. manufacturers accountable for setting fair labor standards for overseas production contractors.

Jay Mazur, president of the ILGWU, called the health care issue the most critical problem for his members, adding that the union is spending between $300,000 and $500,000 in TV advertising in Northeastern markets about the issue.

"This is a major issue for our members," Mazur said, noting that members paid out more than $210 million in benefits in 1993 while receiving only $110 million in employer contributions. In reaction to shortfalls in the welfare and health funds, ILGWU members were charged for the first time a co-payment of $23 per month for individual coverage or $110 per month for family coverage, as a condition of eligibility. Mazur said that they want employers to assume responsibility for co-payments.

Mazur emphasized that such employee contributions are significant, given that workers earn an average of $10,000 a year. He added that an estimated 15 percent of ILGWU members now have no health care coverage because they have elected not to make co-payments and are not covered by a spouse's insurance.

Reacting negatively to their demands, manufacturers and employer organizations vowed that a long fight is ahead.

"It stinks," said a member of the New York Coat and Suit association, who wanted to remain anonymous. "This is not addressing the terrible problems that domestic unionized manufacturers are facing. The wage increase and the increase to the health and welfare funds would be a double whammy. We would just get killed. Maybe we should strike.""If you're in the Garden of Eden, this proposal would work," said Eli Elias, executive director of the New York Skirt and Sportswear Association, calling the union's demands "natural but unrealistic."

"I think we have a lot of work to do," he added.

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