updated 4/25/2007 10:42:40 AM ET 2007-04-25T14:42:40

General Electric Co. expects to sell its plastics unit in the second or third quarter this year, its chief executive said Wednesday, divesting itself of a business that has been a drag on company profits.

GE Chairman and Chief Executive Jeff Immelt, speaking to reporters at the company's annual shareholders' meeting, said GE has gotten significant interest in the plastics business.

"The momentum is good," Immelt said.

A Saudi firm is reportedly putting together a bid of as much as $12 billion for the division, which has struggled since 2004 because of the rising costs of benzene, a key component in plastic.

(MSNBC.com is a joint venture of Microsoft and NBC Universal, which is a GE company.)

Immelt predicted double digit earnings for the Fairfield, Conn.-based manufacturing, media and financial services conglomerate. He said he expected the company's $8.3 billion bid for Abbott Laboratories would close in the third quarter. GE announced in January that it would buy Abbott's in-vitro diagnostics and point-of-care diagnostics businesses, which test blood and urine samples.

European Union antitrust regulators approved an $8.3 billion bid on Wednesday for the business, which tests blood and urine samples to diagnose diseases and other conditions.

About 500 shareholders were expected to attend GE's annual meeting, where Immelt was expected to speak Wednesday morning.

Outside the meeting, about 150 retirees demanded an increase in their pensions.

Carrying signs identifying themselves as the Retirees Association of General Electric (RAGE), several protesters said their last increase was in 2000.

"There's no reason they shouldn't increase our pension," said William Freeda, a retired videotape editor at NBC News in New York. "It's high time they did."

The protest, which drew retirees who had traveled by bus from Erie, Pa., Schenectady, N.Y., Louisville, Ky., and other GE work sites, has become a familiar sight at GE's annual shareholder meetings.

"Some have traveled 16 hours to ask Jeff Immelt to give them some of their money," Freeda said.

Helen Quirini, an assembler and production worker at GE in Schenectady for 39 years until her retirement in 1980, said she's been pushing for a pension increase for years.

"I want them to treat our pension fairly," said Quirini, 87.

Copyright 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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