Fighting for the jobs that Erie deserves

March 6, 2019

Wilson Ekern and Alex Wood report on the solidarity and working class militancy among manufacturing workers walking the picket line against a union-busting takeover.

FOLLOWING A wave of strikes among teachers and hotel workers, 1,700 workers at a former General Electric (GE) Transportation plant in Erie, Pennsylvania have walked off the job in what is being called the first major manufacturing work stoppage in the last three years.

The members of the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE) Local 506 were forced into action when Wabtec Corp., which recently purchased the locomotive manufacturing plant from GE, ended its contract with UE and tried to impose a series of concessions.

As Saurav Sarkar and Dan DiMaggio of Labor Notes explained:

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.

Locomotive workers strike against an attack on their union in Erie, Pennsylvania
Locomotive workers strike against an attack on their union in Erie, Pennsylvania (United Electrical Workers | Facebook)

Because Wabtac refused the union’s offer to continue working under the existing contract while negotiations continued, Local 506 argues that the work stoppage should be considered a lockout, and that its members should therefore be eligible to collect unemployment while they’re out.

But while workers were forced onto the picket lines by a union-busting employer, now that they’re out, they’re fighting hard to make sure they will have the final say on the conditions of their workplace.

The strike in Erie comes at a time when teachers and nurses have started using their unions to stand up and fight after years of attacks on workers, especially in areas of the country still reeling from the 2008 economic crisis.

For the most part, this new wave of job actions hasn’t yet broken through in blue-collar unions, although the spirit of militancy was clear in the opposition of Teamsters at UPS to their union imposing a bad contract that they had voted down by 54 percent.

But on a cold Tuesday morning last month, Local 506 members joined their fellow workers in West Virginia, Chicago, LA, Oakland, Vermont, Kentucky and Colorado as the latest group to set up picket lines to fight for their jobs and their communities.

THE CHILLY wind blowing in off Lake Erie hasn’t dampened the spirit of striking workers.

Outside each of the plant’s many side entrances was a beige warming tent, stacks of pallets next to burn barrels, and workers carrying signs and waving at the honking cars as they drove by. They were doing a lot of waving — the honking was almost constant.

“We’re standing up for the community, too,” said Dave Harkness, a high bay crane operator at the plant, as he sipped coffee and snacked on a donut in a warming tent situated around the perimeter of the plant.

Indeed, the strikers’ picket signs read “On Strike for the Jobs Our Communities Deserve” — reminiscent of the 2012 slogan of the Chicago teachers strike: “Fighting for the Schools Our Students Deserve.”

Harkness spoke about the union’s well-organized membership, which went on strike the day after Wabtec took over the plant. This is the first strike since a 102-day walkout in 1969 that ended in a UE victory. Harkness was very proud of what the union has accomplished, with a system “that works and has worked for 100 years.”

As Harkness talked, a new shift of picketers was just arriving. The line stretched out of the tent and down past the burn barrel, striking workers in camouflage hunting gear and fleece-lined work pants waiting to sign in for their shift on the line.

Supplies showed up periodically: a trailer full of scrap wood and pallets was unloaded quickly and added to the growing pile for the burn barrel; a passing car passed out boxes of donuts; a pickup truck full of food arrived soon after.

A woman in a bright red sweatshirt from a Turkey Trot 5K got out of the pickup and started handing out subs, gallons of milk, PB&Js and coffee. “That’s donated from Circle K!” she said to a chorus of “Thank you!” from the workers.

Workers’ families came out to the picket line as well. One young girl held signs with pictures of her together with her father, next to black stickers that read, “Don’t take away our Daddy Daughter Time!”

Her father, who asked not to be named, had been on the picket line since 3 a.m. He’s worked at the plant for 13 years, and the mandatory overtime clause Wabtec tried to force into the UE contract was a major concern for him.

“How many people do they want to die?” he asked, referring to the high safety standards of the union, and the danger of the two-tiered contract bringing in poorly trained temp workers.

Behind the factory’s closed gates sat an idling black SUV.

“The Pinkertons! That’s what we’re calling them anyway,” said one worker, who explained that after the strikers “got a little rowdy” earlier in the week, Wabtec got a judge to grant them an affidavit limiting how many workers could march in front of the gates. The private security guards were there to make sure they followed those terms.

AT A rally outside the main gates of the plant, the honking was even louder, and members of the community lined both sides of the street, bearing banners and megaphones. A lone guy in a blue windbreaker stood behind a TV camera, shivering and blowing into his hands. Behind him, the huge GE employee parking lot stood roped off and empty.

Ten strikers, the maximum allowed by the affidavit, marched in a circle in front of the gates, while behind them, a few private security guards stood next to their cars watching. A red vinyl sign on the fence that read “GE Transportation — now a Wabtec company” waved slightly in the wind.

The rally brought out members of the AFL-CIO, International Association of Machinists and Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA).

PSEA Regional President Tracy Hart stressed the importance of working-class solidarity and the need to stand up together in the struggle for workers’ rights. “What we do affects our kids, affects our communities,” she told Socialist Worker. “All the things that happen, it’s the kids that make it all worth it.”

Solidarity was the key theme of the rally. Workers mentioned the teachers’ strike wave in almost every conversation, and UE strike captain Mark Ferritto was adamant about the role this strike plays in the broader U.S. labor movement.

“As we see the value of a worker reduced across all industries, we also see a correlation in the reduction in these people’s quality of life and the deterioration of infrastructure,” he said. “It doesn’t matter the industry you work in, we’re seeing our communities suffer.”

“This is the first major manufacturing strike in three years in the U.S — we represent what used to be,” he said, stressing the attacks that corporations have committed against U.S. workers and the weaknesses that unions have shown in response.

Ferritto thinks the strike wave “is contagious...I think people are energized” and ready to stand together to build a better future.

IN THE Local 506 union hall, the mood was similarly optimistic. When we arrived, Local 506 President Scott Slawson had just introduced Bernie Sanders at his campaign rally in Brooklyn, which was projected on a big screen at the front of the hall.

The huge, colorful mural on the opposite wall, with its depictions of radical female workers and the worldwide workers’ movement, was hard to see behind the stacks of boxes filled with supplies: bread and handwarmers, paper plates, cups, soap, coffee, cough drops.

The tables were stacked with platters of cookies, donuts and sandwiches, and volunteers were cooking big trays of pasta for the workers and their families. They’re stocked up for a long fight, with the full backing of the community behind them.

Local 506 members have positioned themselves for the long haul in their fight against Wabtec’s anti-union tactics used by so many corporations like them. They have the community behind them, and they have confidence in themselves, because they know Wabtec can’t simply replace their expertise and training with someone off the street in this type of industry.

As this article was being finalized, UE was hosting a rally near Pittsburgh outside Wabtec’s headquarters to build more support for the workers in Erie.

Local 506 workers have seen enough attacks from powerful corporations on their union and their community to know that they’re in for a tough fight. But they are energized by the knowledge that they are connected to a larger movement of working people finally starting to punch back.

Mike Ferritto captured this spirit as he talked to a circle of workers outside the gates: “When this started, we were stewards of the union, but now, we’re stewards of the working class.”

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