Locomotive workers put the brakes on concessions

March 12, 2019

Isabelle B., Nick T and Ben MJ report on a hard-fought temporary victory won by 1,700 striking workers eager to end decades of concessionary manufacturing contracts.

SOME 1,700 workers at a former GE Transportation locomotive factory in Erie, Pennsylvania, have temporarily fended off a major attack by their new employer Wabtec to weaken their union through a two-tiered workforce.

Members of United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE) Local 506 — as well as clerical workers in UE Local 618 — struck for almost two weeks against Wabtec’s demands for mandatory overtime and passive pay cuts for new hires. On March 6, Wabtec and UE announced a 90-day contract extension, which will give both sides more time to come to an agreement — or prepare for an even bigger confrontation.

If Local 506 members are able to hold the line against Wabtec’s demands for concessions, it would be a major victory, and a sign that the nationwide strike wave that has been dominated by teachers can also work in private-sector manufacturing industries.

On the picket line at Webtec in Erie
On the picket line at Webtec in Erie (United Electrical Workers | Facebook)

While it’s going to take even bigger mobilizations to win a non-concessionary contract with Wabtec at the end of the 90-day period, the workers in Erie have already sent a powerful message to blue-collar workers across the country: If we fight, we can win.

THE GE factory complex in Erie has existed for over 110 years, and for 80 of them, its workers have been UE members. It’s a complex, highly skilled facility that involves what workers characterize as “advanced manufacturing.”.

Workers estimate that the plant currently produces between 17 and 23 locomotives a week, as well as parts used in other former GE Transportation factories. Over the years, the complex has produced everything from home appliances to tanks for the Second World War, and the factory used to be known for producing its own parts, from the screws on up.

At its peak, the plant employed 21,000 people. A few years ago, it employed 4,500. Today, about 1,700 UE workers remain, and before the Wabtec acquisition, GE stated that it viewed 1,500 workers as the “ideal” number for the facility.

Increases in productivity and changes to the economy no doubt account for some of this reduction, but many jobs have also been moved to other locations over the years, including a now closed operation in Syracuse, New York, and a non-union plant in Texas.

In recent years, General Electric had intended to shut the plant down by 2018, but was eventually forced to abandon those plans.

When Wabtec, originally an airbrake supplier for the plant, acquired GE’s transportation division, some workers at the Erie plant hoped the company would bring fresh ideas and beneficial change. Instead, they were met with the exact same managers, now reporting to a different set of out-of-touch executives trying to use the situation to extract concessions.

Wabtech has essentially tripled in size overnight with its acquisition and has no other facilities of similar size or complexity to the Erie plant. Bob, a UE strike captain, described the merger as “the mouse trying to eat the cat.”

Wabtec executives saw a plant where workers had better pay and conditions than their counterparts at other plants, and decided to increase “efficiency” by paying the workers less so they could pocket more — while the ex-GE managers retained in Erie perhaps saw a chance to get away with things that had previously been impossible.

Wabtec demanded mandatory overtime and a two-tier contract that would pay new or rehired workers up to 38 percent less, combining job descriptions and making up to a fifth of the workforce temporary.

When Local 506 responded by asking to continue under their current contract, the company refused, claiming that the factory is its “least competitive” despite being enormously profitable. Bob, the strike captain, was incredulous at the company’s false comparisons. “Competitive with what?” he asked.

His point was that you can’t compare Erie with the Texas factory, which does very different work, and you can’t compare the plant salary to prevailing wages in the area, because the factory is one of the only places with good jobs that Erie still has. In fact, given the type of advanced manufacturing they perform, some workers at the plant think they are under-compensated.

Many of the workers at the Erie plant have been there for decades. The skill and experience built over the years are irreplaceable — other locations without the same kind of history can’t match their rates of production and have higher rates of defects. As Local 506 member Phil DeMartino put it: “When 40 years walks out the door, that’s 40 years of knowledge you’re not getting back.”

One of the workers on the picket line told us that the major railroad company CSX had resisted attempts by GE to manufacture locomotives elsewhere because CSX “doesn’t want anyone else making their locomotives.”

Like many corporations, GE and Wabtec are so blinded by the pursuit of profit and so arrogant in their view that all workers are interchangeable that they push to replace the most skilled and experienced employees with ones who can be paid less because they are more precarious and inexperienced — whether or not it’s even what in their best long-term interests as capitalists.

WHILE WABTEC is an industry upstart that may or may not have been prepared for this fight, UE has an 80-year-long track record of militancy, from its history as one of the first unions to win contracts that guaranteed equal pay for women, to its 102-day strike at the Erie plant 50 years ago, to its pay structure where union officers compensation is on par with that of its members. “No one’s getting rich at the union hall,” says Local 506 business agent Michael Ferritto.

That pay structure also applies to UE national officers like President Peter Knowlton, who was in the Local 506 union hall lending support for the strike. When we mentioned Teamster President James Hoffa Jr. is imposing a terrible contract at UPS on locals that voted it down, Knowlton said that while the UE national organization offers support and advice, the locals would be well within their rights to “tell [them] to pound sand.”

With this built into the union, the workers we spoke to voiced confidence in their leadership, especially Local 506 President Scott Slawson, whose fiery introduction that morning to Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign announcement received hearty cheers when it was streamed from a cell phone into a picket-line bullhorn.

The union also has on its side a key element of any successful working-class struggle: solidarity. Wabtec has tried to keep the factory open by busing in managers and supervisors, but those plans were complicated when the Ohio-based limo company they contracted backed out after discovering that they were transporting scabs to cross a picket line.

Community support has also been palpable, with honks of support almost constantly sounding as cars went by the picket lines or union hall. This solidarity from the wider Erie population isn’t automatic; it has been cultivated through hard work.

Since the 1990s, when the union was viewed less favorably, Local 506 has worked tirelessly to support and fight for its place in the Erie community. One person staffing the food tables as we were leaving remarked particularly about UE’s support for the local Veterans Administration, which has in turn come out in solidarity with striking workers.

FOR THOSE of us who had the opportunity to travel to the Standing Rock Reservation two winters ago to support the water protectors fighting the Dakota Access pipeline, the picket line in Erie felt familiar.

It’s not just the scenes of workers warming up inside nylon carports amid a snowy landscape, the supporters visiting from near and far, or the carloads of donated food and supplies that kept arriving. It’s the level of organization.

Like Standing Rock, this strike demonstrated working people’s creativity, discipline and capacity for organization. What needed to get done got done. The supplies that were needed always showed up, hot food was always on hand, and the picket kept going at all hours.

The operation functioned like a well-oiled machine, while being led by clearly respected rank-and-file figures who were in their positions because they were trusted to get the job done. While not in itself a model of a different kind of society, it was evidence of the power of the working class to create one.

Local 506 members see themselves as carrying forward the struggle exemplified by the ongoing teachers’ strike wave, calling themselves stewards not just of their own union, but of the working class as a whole.

And in a region where Trump operatives are working overtime to pit workers against their counterparts in other countries, UE has actively fostered international solidarity, as evidenced by the beautiful mural in Local 506’s union hall with scenes of women in struggle on both sides of the U.S./Mexico border.

The mural, which has a counterpart in Guanajuato, Mexico, was painted in 2000 as a product of UE building solidarity with the independent union Frente Auténtico del Trabajo in opposition to President Bill Clinton’s anti-worker NAFTA deal. A red-shirted worker named Matt summed it up: “Capital has gone global. Labor needs to go global.”

Local 506 members see themselves as building solidarity not only with workers around the world, but also with workers in future generations.

Dan Mentley brought his twin 8-year-old granddaughters, Skyler and Sidney Abbey, to the picket line, telling them that this strike would make history. When the girls asked him if anyone would write about them, Dan told them no, probably not — but that when they read about this strike, they could remember what they had seen and be proud that they were there.

When we asked Dan if we could write up this memory, he enthusiastically agreed and wrote down the names of his granddaughters. So it turns out that someone did write about Skyler and Sidney Abbey after all.

It’s a small reminder of the bigger lesson of the Erie strike: If working people want to see ourselves in the stories that are told about our lives — if we want our job sites to be described as anything more than “competitive” and our communities to be described as anything beyond “depressed” — we are going to have to write that history ourselves.

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