At a sprawling locomotive manufacturing complex a mile long and a mile wide in Erie, Pennsylvania, 1,700 workers walked off the job early Tuesday morning to fend off their new employer’s efforts to impose a raft of concessions, including two-tier wages.
Temperatures are below freezing, so at the dozen picket lines ringing the plant, burn barrels are fired up. Pickup trucks periodically drop off wood. Hundreds of members of the Electrical Workers (UE) are on the line, making life difficult for any non-union employees who try to drive through the gates.
Many of the picketers are dressed in camo. Some are wearing stickers that say “102 days,” a reference to 1969, the last time workers at this plant walked out.
On Monday, the former GE Transportation plant formally became a part of Wabtec (Westinghouse Airbrake Technologies), which bought the $4 billion-a-year division from the industrial conglomerate last year.
Since Wabtec kept the same workforce, the union remains the collective bargaining representative at the plant, and the company must bargain over a new agreement, though it can implement new terms and conditions to start.
UE proposed keeping the terms of the existing collective bargaining agreement in place while negotiating a new contract, but Wabtec rejected that proposal. Instead it said it would impose a two-tier pay system that would pay new hires and recalled employees up to 38 percent less in wages, institute mandatory overtime, reorganize job classifications, and hire temporary workers for up to 20 percent of the plant’s jobs.
Workers voted on Saturday to authorize the strike.
Almost all the strikers are members of UE Local 506, one of the biggest locals in the 35,000-member union. A handful of clerical workers belong to Local 618.
A FRESH START SPOILED
The UE has fought off similar concessionary proposals from GE for years, usually accompanied by the company’s threats to move production elsewhere.
“We all wanted a fresh start with this new company,” said Bryan Pietrzak, an assembly line worker and Local 506 member who has worked at the plant since 2011.
A few blocks away from the plant, the main room inside the Local 506 union hall is ringed with banners proclaiming the union’s opposition to two-tier. “Selling out new hires is not negotiating—it is CANNIBALISM,” proclaims one. Another simply says, “One union, one tier.”
A report commissioned by the union and released on Thursday estimates that given the expected turnover in the plant, a 40 percent wage reduction would lead to $17 million in lost wages—equivalent to Wabtec CEO Raymond Betler’s bonus package from the merger.
“Unless Mr. Betler plans to spend his entire bonus package in Erie County, these proposed wage cuts would be a major hit to our local economy,” said Local 506 President Scott Slawson in a press release.
The wages earned by workers at the plant are crucial to the local economy, particularly small businesses. The union’s picket signs say “On Strike for the Jobs Our Communities Deserve,” a nod to the “Fighting for the Schools Our Students Deserve” slogan popularized by the Chicago teachers during their 2012 strike.
The company’s move to institute mandatory overtime has also infuriated workers, who worry about the impact on their personal lives and families. Workers say that 85 percent of the plant’s employees already volunteer for overtime.
“They want to take time away from our families. There’s been so many problems with families breaking up because they don’t spend enough time with them,” said Don Brown, a Local 506 member and a safety coordinator at the plant. “Now they want to cut our wages, too!”
Other points of contention for the union include management’s desire to shift schedules away from a standard Monday to Friday week and to reduce the number of job classifications at the plant. The union says reducing job classifications will endanger worker safety by putting employees in functions they are not qualified to do.
Inside the plant, workers do the highly-skilled work of building diesel-electric freight locomotives, which pull trains all over the world.
Each locomotive, which the Wall Street Journal describes as “a power plant on rails,” sells for millions of dollars to domestic or international railroad companies.
The Erie plant, which had 21,000 workers at its peak, has long been one of the world’s top locomotive production facilities. GE Transportation is the leading producer of freight locomotives in the U.S. and Canada, and also a significant player in the global market.
The industry is cyclical, ebbing and flowing with freight demand and the aging of locomotive fleets. Many workers at the Erie plant have weathered long layoffs and eventually been recalled. In the meantime they were often forced to work jobs that pay a fraction of the plant’s $35-an-hour wage.
PUSHED AGAINST THE WALL
Wabtec’s acquisition went into effect February 25, terminating UE’s national agreement with GE prematurely. The Erie locomotive plant was the last plant covered under this agreement, first negotiated in 1938. Decades of plant closures, relocations, and spinoffs eliminated the rest.
Wabtec announced its purchase of GE Transportation last May. The union approached the company in November, but did not hear back until the following month. Bargaining began in late January.
Negotiations did not pick up in earnest until the beginning of February, after the merger date between Wabtec and GE Transportation was finally set. The union met with management multiple times last week, hoping to reach a short-term agreement while the two sides negotiate a new contract.
Meanwhile, the union escalated its resistance in steps, including an in-plant march on Wednesday, a mass membership meeting on Thursday, a practice picket on Friday, and a strike authorization vote on Saturday.
A federal mediator was present on Sunday and Monday. But after negotiations that lasted late into Monday night failed to produce a deal, workers walked out at 5 a.m. on Tuesday.
“You push somebody against the wall, they’re going to come back fighting,” said Brown. “They ain’t giving us a choice.”
A LONG HISTORY OF FIGHTING
Labor disputes at the plant go back even further than UE, which has been the bargaining agent at the factory since 1937.
The first mass strike at this factory took place more than a century ago, in 1918. With support from local Machinists (IAM) and Electrical Workers (IBEW) locals, 2,300 workers struck for union recognition and against unfair layoffs, including dismissals over union activity.
Again, in the aftermath of World War II, UE employees at the plant went on strike for a 25-cent-an-hour raise. The national strike against GE lasted nine weeks. It was part of a mass strike by UE, the Auto Workers, and the Steel Workers that involved over a million workers. The three unions won an 18.5-cents-an-hour wage increase.
In 1969, Local 506 members went on a plant-wide strike that lasted 102 days, part of a national action against concession GE was demanding. The workers won increased wages, paid sick leave and personal days for hourly workers, and a restoration of cost-of-living allowances GE had taken away in 1960. The strike paved the way for future gains in the contracts of the 1970s.
However, GE pushed back by outsourcing more parts production to third-party suppliers or non-union factories in the decades since. In the early 1980s, the factory’s foundry was shut down and its diesel engine production was moved to a non-union GE facility in Grove City, Pennsylvania, 75 miles away, where UE Local 601 continues to organize as a non-majority union.
KEEP JOBS IN ERIE
In 2011, GE announced it was opening a new, non-union locomotive manufacturing facility in Fort Worth, Texas, ostensibly for overflow work. The million-square-foot factory opened in January 2013. By April of that year, GE had announced it was cutting 950 jobs in Erie to move production to Fort Worth, prompting walkouts by UE members in Erie in protest.
Then in 2017, the company announced that all locomotive production would be transferred to Fort Worth, eliminating another 572 jobs. The Erie plant would be left to produce prototypes and components.
The union says those plans have stumbled, however, as the company has struggled to recruit and maintain skilled workers in the low-wage Texas plant, with quality suffering as a result. Given those issues, as well as the pickup in demand for locomotives, more work is now being sent back to the Erie plant. Hundreds of workers were recalled over the past year, and until Tuesday morning, the plant continued to make locomotives.
Pietrzak, who was laid off along with hundreds of others in 2016, was recalled in October. Now, following the merger with Wabtec, he’s on the picket line fighting for the future of the plant along with 1,700 other UE members.
“It’s not about money,” he said. “It’s about having my son or daughter, or your son or daughter, standing next to me doing the same work, making 30 percent less.”
The strikers have gotten support from Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, who has helped draw national attention to their struggle. “In my view, the Wabtec/GE merger should not be used to take away the hard-fought gains UE has achieved over the past several decades,” Sanders wrote to the company’s CEO on February 21.
Sanders has invited Local 506 President Scott Slawson to speak at his presidential campaign kickoff rally at Brooklyn College on March 2.
Next week, strikers will bring their fight to Wabtec’s company headquarters in Wilmderding, Pennsylvania, at a big rally on the afternoon of Wednesday, March 6. They’ll be joined by members of UE Local 610, who work at the Wabtec facility there, which manufactures air brake systems for the railroad industry, including the ones used in the locomotives assembled at the Erie plant.