ERIE, PA — “What do you think of the company’s contract proposals?” asked a man at the head of a contingent of workers marching down the avenue that cuts through the mile-long, mile-wide Wabtec locomotive manufacturing complex.
“Fuck you!” responded members of the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE), their voices echoing off the walls of the buildings around them.
A few blocks down Main Street inside Irish Cousins, the bar across from the union hall of Local 506, which represents the plant’s workers — save for the handful of clerical employees, members of Local 618 whose jobs have not been eliminated through automation — one patron’s “How are you doing?” was answered by another customer with “Waiting on the word.”
It was the afternoon of Friday, June 9, and roughly 1,400 workers at the four-million-square-foot plant were preparing for the possibility that when their four-year contract expired at midnight, they would be on strike.
The week prior, union members voted overwhelmingly to authorize local leadership to call a strike should negotiations with Wabtec (an abbreviation of Westinghouse Air Brake Technologies Corporation) fail to produce a tentative agreement. Updates during this week, printed on flyers disseminated throughout the plant, suggested that they would do so.
“Over the past 4 weeks UE Locals 506 and 618 have attempted to patiently bargain and convey the needs of our members in good faith, with the goal to get a fair contract,” read one flyer distributed on Friday. “Meanwhile the Company has done everything to raise the temperature in the plant.”
As the clock ticked down to midnight, the two sides were far apart on a range of issues in their negotiations for a second contract. The first contract was negotiated when General Electric (GE) sold the $4-billion-a-year division to Pittsburgh-based Wabtec in 2019, ending more than a century of the company’s operations in Lawrence Park township on Erie’s east side.
UE has represented the plant’s workers since 1937, the year before the union negotiated its first national agreement with GE. Thanks to decades of plant closures, corporate reconfigurations, and outsourcing both overseas and to nonunion plants in the United States, the shop, whose product is sold to domestic and international railroad companies, was the last remaining facility covered by the national agreement.
On Friday night, with less than an hour until the contract expired, a federal mediator now involved, and letters of solidarity flooding in from workers across Wabtec’s international supply chain, the union’s executive board agreed to a twenty-four-hour contract extension to allow for an additional day of bargaining. The next day, the board announced they would bring Wabtec’s final offer to a membership vote on June 22. Should they reject it, they will be on strike. As of this writing, the board has not decided whether they will recommend the offer. The members are now working without a contract.
Right to Strike Over Grievances
One priority among Wabtec workers is the right to strike over grievances. They had that right in the GE contract, and while a nine-day strike in 2019 defeated some of Wabtec’s most egregious proposals, members ratified a first contract that didn’t include it.
The result has been a disaster for workers, who say Wabtec has turned the grievance process into a tool of management rather than a method for settling disputes, increasing shop-floor friction.
The number of grievances has ballooned, a May report from the Illinois School of Labor and Employment Relations found. Grievances are less likely to reach closure than they were under GE, more likely to drag on for months or even years, and more than twice as likely to be rejected.
“Had the company treated the grievance process with the respect it and the members deserve over the last four years, this wouldn’t be an issue today,” said Local 506 president Scott Slawson. “But they chose to do just the opposite and drive everything to arbitration — which takes time, meaning issues don’t get resolved, creating a lot of angst and consternation on the shop floor. Unfortunately, the company we work for doesn’t see an issue with that.”
According to chief steward Leo Grzegorzewski, 95 percent of grievances that reach the third and final step are rejected by Wabtec, forcing the union to go to arbitration, a route that costs it around $9,000 each time. Since 2019, around sixty-eight grievances have reached arbitration.
The Erie workers rarely struck over grievances when the plant was owned by GE — they did it only four times from 2005 to 2019, for a total of thirteen hours — but the possibility of a strike forced management to treat them with respect. Without it, workers say contract violations are rampant, with management empowered to do as it pleases.
The first contract allowed strikes over timeliness in the grievance process and any permanent subcontracting or transfer of work. Slawson said Wabtec’s new offer as of Tuesday morning expands the right to strike to include cases in which the company does not follow an arbitrator’s ruling or takes the union to court over that ruling.
In other words, it falls well short of what was in the GE contract. UE would still be forced into expensive, lengthy arbitration proceedings before it could move toward a strike.
“One of the great tragedies of the American labor movement is that in the McCarthy era, most of the labor movement decided to give up the fight over controlling conditions on the shop floor,” says UE general president Carl Rosen. “That’s what having the right to strike over grievances allows you: the ability to keep the employer from imposing their will at any point during a contract while you’re stuck and can’t do anything until that contract expires.”
There is also the urgent matter of upgrading the locomotives built by Wabtec’s workers to pollute less.
UE’s Erie locals have been leading the union’s national Green Locomotive Project, which calls for upgrading locomotive stock to modern “Tier 4” standards for long-haul routes and to zero-emissions technologies in rail yards. Last month, UE members, including workers from Wabtec, testified in favor of proposed new Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) rules allowing states to set higher standards for diesel emissions from locomotives.
Building green locomotives in the Erie plant would create between 2,600 and 4,300 new Wabtec jobs, according to a report from the University of Massachusetts Amherst, as well three to five thousand additional jobs in Erie County as a result of the increased production. Lawrence Park, built by GE a century ago as a company town, still depends on the plant’s wages, and the effect of such an initiative would be transformative for an area whose fate is still tied to the plant.
“It’s a high-priority issue for a number of reasons,” says Slawson. “It’s gainful employment, and it’s contributing to the solution rather than the problem” of climate change.
The union wants Wabtec to commit to joining a push for higher EPA standards. But Slawson says the company has “flat out rejected” collaboration on this issue.
“The right to strike forces mutual respect and dialogue in the workplace,” says Association of Flight Attendants (AFA)-CWA president Sara Nelson, who spoke on a recent press call about the fight for the right to strike over grievances at Wabtec. “Not having that right — and management fighting so hard not to have it — is a clear sign that they have no intention of moving forward on climate initiatives that involve the workers’ knowledge about the workplace and about what’s necessary to maintain the jobs and make a good product.”
Wabtec workers also want to eliminate, or at least significantly reduce, the wage progression agreed to in their first contract. Under the 2019 contract, a new worker hired as a production technician (the plant’s lowest job classification) started at $20.47 an hour and after ten years reached the $31.49 hourly wage earned by a “legacy” counterpart in that same classification. While an improvement over Wabtec’s initial 2019 proposal, which called for a starting wage of $17 an hour with an eighteen-year progression, the inequality is an issue, creating the potential for resentment among workers and, according to Local 506, leading some new workers to qualify for government assistance.
Legacy workers, those not subject to the wage progression, want a raise too. While Wabtec authorized a $750-million stock buyback earlier this year, the workers haven’t received a pay bump since around 2016, when the plant was still run by GE. That amounts to a roughly 19-percent pay cut when adjusted for inflation.
Wabtec’s offer includes an immediate 3.4-percent raise plus a $3,000 lump-sum payment upon ratification for legacy workers, and a $1 hourly increase plus a $3,000 lump-sum payment upon ratification for those under the wage progression. All workers will then receive a 2.5-percent raise in 2024, a $2,000 lump-sum payment in 2025, and a 2.5-percent raise in 2026. The company rejected proposals to shorten the ten-year progression.
As negotiations were taking place, workers say Wabtec told them that if they hadn’t already scheduled vacation for the remainder of the year, the company was going to schedule it for them. This move, yet another contract violation, inflamed members.
“When they unilaterally schedule your vacation, that means you’re essentially getting no vacation, because it’s likely going to be at a time when the rest of your family can’t join,” says UE president Rosen. “They’re undermining the family, and that undermines the community.”
Workers say another issue is Wabtec’s practice of temporarily transferring a worker within a classification to wherever they want, for however long they want, without regard to seniority. While the union won an arbitration over a grievance concerning the problem, Wabtec appealed the decision to federal court.
“The company’s offer potentially resolves a little bit of future conflict with that issue,” says Slawson before adding that cause for concern remains. The company “would not change the language in the contract and would only resolve it via a side letter stating that they would, with prejudice, withdraw the federal appeal.”
“We have a very large facility that encompasses hundreds of acres and more than twenty buildings,” explains Slawson, who before serving as the local’s president was a heavy fabrication welder. “Say I bid on a weld job in the plant. What I actually do is bid on a weld job in building five at station one on day shift. The problem with temporary transfers is that the company is saying they can move me anywhere they want inside the plant for any period of time, without respect to seniority or specific to a shift. I could bid on a day-shift position and they could say, ‘We don’t need you on day shift, so we’re going to put you on second shift in a completely different area.’”
Additionally, if a worker is laid off, as they frequently are at the plant, Wabtec has not been counting that time toward seniority. Members entered bargaining hoping to change that. According to Slawson, Wabtec’s offer resolves part of that conflict, crediting workers some amount of seniority for past and future layoffs.
“The Company’s Number-One Whipping Post”
“Our CEO has publicly stated that employees are the company’s number-one asset,” says Slawson. “But when you survey the employees, nobody feels like the company’s number-one asset. They feel like the company’s number-one whipping post. Wabtec has made no bones about not respecting its employees, demoralizing its employees, and showing a complete lack of compassion to their employees.”
“Business has become not only more consolidated to the C-suite in corporate America, but decisions have been moved away from production in general too,” says AFA-CWA’s Nelson. “What we’re seeing with the outside stressors of stock buybacks, the consolidation of ownership by hedge funds, and the relentless focus on driving down labor costs in order to push greater profits to Wall Street is that those decisions are taken away from the shop floor.”
So why bring the offer to membership rather than call a strike over the weekend? Slawson said the board wanted members to decide based on where negotiations stand now — not where they stood when the strike authorization vote was taken.
“If the members say, ‘We can’t live with this,” that’s a much louder message,” he said.
He also made reference to threats by Wabtec, telling me, “We deal with an employer that negotiates with threats, and that has to be taken into consideration. It’s difficult to negotiate with somebody when they put a gun to your head rather than looking you in the eye.”
Slawson declined to elaborate. But he may have been referring to a letter a Wabtec representative handed to him on the evening of June 9.
The company writes that it has been assessing the Erie plant’s “long-term viability” and refers to its unfavorable “competitive position” relative to Wabtec’s nonunion plants. Citing the union’s stubborn insistence on raises and proposals that would limit its “operational flexibility,” the company lists 275 union jobs that it is considering “permanently subcontracting.”
Such saber-rattling has a long history in this plant. GE in 2017 moved hundreds of jobs to a nonunion plant in Fort Worth, Texas, but ended up moving them back to Erie after struggling to hire and retain enough skilled workers. Nonetheless, a similar threat from Wabtec played a role in the 2019 settlement.
Even so, there’s little reason for Wabtec to feel confident that workers will accept its offer. Orders are up, increasing members’ leverage. And because they’re now without a contract, there’s no longer a no-strike, no-lockout clause.
Wabtec has begun bringing scabs in, and workers say management is nervous, aware that its actions — including sending everyone a letter explaining how to legally cross a picket line and how to resign from the union — may backfire.
When I stopped into Irish Cousins on Monday night, workers were discussing their frustration. Across the street, piles of strike signs and tents sat in the Local 506 hall; should members decide to do so, it would only take a moment to bring them to the plant gates.