On the evening of June 22, members of the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE) crowded into Iroquois High School to vote on whether they would accept what their boss was offering them. They are employed by Wabtec (an abbreviation of Westinghouse Air Brake Technologies Corporation), at a four-million-square-foot locomotive manufacturing plant in Lawrence Park, on the east side of Erie, Pennsylvania.
Lawrence Park was built by General Electric (GE), which ran the plant for more than a century before the company spun off its $4-billion-a-year transportation arm in 2019, transferring ownership to Wabtec. The area still feels like a company town: the roughly four thousand residents are tied to the plant in countless ways, and UE signs dot Lawrence Park’s Main Street, affixed to telephone poles and stuck in front lawns.
At Iroquois High, the members of UE Local 506 and Local 618 (the latter consists of the plant’s clerical employees whose jobs have not been eliminated by automation, now numbering in the single digits) were voting on Wabtec’s last, best, and final offer for a new four-year contract. They struck for nine days to win that first contract in 2019, defeating some of Wabtec’s most egregious proposals but giving up certain provisions they had enjoyed under GE, some of which they hoped to win back during the current negotiations. The company’s 1,400 workers have now been without a contract since June 10, when that first contract expired.
Months of bargaining failed to produce a tentative agreement, and the company’s actions only increased the workers’ frustration. Hours before the contract expired, Wabtec informed Local 506 president Scott Slawson that it was considering permanently subcontracting out 275 union jobs, which members read as a threat. That interpretation was only confirmed when the company then told Slawson on June 20 that it would rescind that move should the workers accept the offer.
As Slawson told 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.”
Around 6:00 p.m. on June 22, the verdict was in: this offer wasn’t good enough. Members of the UE locals overwhelmingly voted to reject the offer, and supplies were immediately taken out of Local 506’s union hall as members set up picket lines at the plant’s gates. With their rejection of Wabtec’s offer, the workers are now on strike.
There are several points of disagreement between Wabtec and its workforce. The workers want the right to strike over grievances, a right they held for eighty years when the plant was run by GE but gave up in their first contract with Wabtec. Without that right, they say that the company feels empowered to systematically violate the contract, and workers have little recourse.
As a May report from the Illinois School of Labor and Employment Relations found, under Wabtec, 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.
Chief steward Leo Grzegorzewski says that 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 UE around $9,000 each time. Since 2019, around sixty-eight grievances have reached arbitration. According to UE, the number of grievances reaching the final stage of the grievance procedure has increased tenfold since Wabtec took over the plant.
In other words, without the right to strike over grievances, the workers are governed by a managerial dictatorship, with the employer free to ignore terms of the contract it may find onerous and workers waiting years to see any resolution for these violations.
Another noneconomic proposal concerns green locomotives: the workers want to build them, and they want Wabtec to commit to working with them to push for higher governmental standards that would incentivize the industry to move toward less-polluting rail engines.
UE also represents workers who are employed in rail yards: it is workers like these who bear the cost of the rail industry’s pollution, and they want to change that. Toward that end, the union is calling for upgrading locomotive stock to modern “Tier 4” standards for long-haul routes and to zero-emissions technologies in rail yards. A recent report from the University of Massachusetts Amherst finds that building such locomotives would create between 2,600 and 4,300 jobs in the Lawrence Park plant, as well as three to five thousand additional jobs in Erie County. According to Slawson, Wabtec has “flat out rejected” collaboration on the issue.
“Building green locomotives is essential to the future of our country, and will benefit the local economy here in Erie,” said Slawson in a statement announcing the strike. “Unfortunately, Wabtec’s unwillingness to work with us to resolve problems, either through the grievance process or through contract negotiations, is a major impediment to that bright future.”
The significance of the fight inside the sprawling Wabtec plant couldn’t be clearer: manufacturing workers are striking a Fortune 500 company for the right to some measure of control over the shop floor. They want their expertise, including on the matter of green locomotives, respected. Wabtec refuses to accede to those demands, instead choosing to run roughshod over their rights.
UE has represented workers in the plant since 1938. It had been the first union chartered by the then-new Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), and by the end of World War II, UE had five hundred thousand members. But the union was decimated by the Red Scare: refusing to accede to anti-communist hysteria, UE withdrew from the CIO in 1949 (and was formally expelled months later) as its counterparts in the labor movement labeled it “communist dominated.”
Some of its leaders were, in fact, members of the Communist Party, but the label was applied indiscriminately, with little respect to the accuracy of the charge (much less the possibility that membership in the party was not relevant to whether one could join a union). Local 506 was not led by members of the party, but that did not stop John Nelson, its longest-serving president, from becoming the first union leader fired by GE over the matter in 1953.
Outside Local 506’s hall today, a historical landmark bears tribute to Nelson, noting that “he defended workers’ civil liberties while UE represented him in court. He died prematurely at 42.” Inside the hall, a portrait of Nelson hangs on the wall beside ones of James Matles, one of UE’s founding officers, and James Kennedy, another founding officer and the local’s first president.
UE remains a key pole for the left wing of the US labor movement. During the pandemic, it partnered with Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) to create the Emergency Workplace Organizing Committee (EWOC), an effort that assists workers in early-stage organizing that existing unions rarely have the resources or inclination to support. That project has had a hand in several new union campaigns in recent years. Most recently, the group was central to the organization of Barboncino, a pizza restaurant in New York City, which will vote on unionizing via a National Labor Relations Board mail-in ballot election in the coming weeks.
During the 2019 strike at Wabtec, Slawson traveled to Brooklyn to speak at a Bernie Sanders rally, leading the crowd in a strike chant and laying out the stakes of the fight to the many Sanders supporters who had little knowledge of strikes, much less the working conditions at the Wabtec plant.
“For decades, working people and the communities that they live in have been beaten down by greedy corporations while they pay themselves millions in bonuses and stock options,” said Slawson from the podium to the thousands-strong crowd. “This is wrong. It’s a failed model, and we at 618 and 506 in Erie, PA, and our community intend to change that.”
Sanders, in turn, used his lists to text and email people in Pennsylvania to turn out supporters to a UE rally outside Pittsburgh, where Wabtec is headquartered.
Now, the workers at Wabtec are again fighting for demands that go beyond the bread-and-butter matters familiar in union contracts. (Though they are fighting for that, too: Wabtec refuses to put an end to the wage progression introduced in the prior contract, which amounts to unequal pay for equal work.) Theirs is a conflict over questions central to the socialist project: Who controls the shop floor, workers or the boss? Can we force an employer to treat workers with dignity and respect? And if the people who produce polluting machinery want to contribute to a green economy, will the public be on their side, or can a corporation force the continuance of a status quo that is destroying the planet?
Those are high stakes, and in a former company town in the Rust Belt, 1,400 locomotive manufacturing workers are now risking their livelihoods by using their strongest means of leverage to build a future better than the one envisioned by their employer. Solidarity will be crucial to ensuring they, and we, win.