"We're fighting for our future": Inside UE's Fight for the Erie Community
by C.M. Lewis
Last week, workers at GE Transportation took to the picket line at the Lawrence Park, PA factory as their employer began what the union is calling a company lockout.
Wabtec, a Pennsylvania-based corporation specializing in the railway industry, completed a multibillion dollar merger with General Electric’s transportation subsidiary on February 25th, creating a new Fortune 500 company and vaulting them into the S&P 500 with an anticipated $8 billion in revenues in 2019. In the company press release, Wabtec CEO Raymond T. Betler stated that “This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to bring together nearly four centuries of collective experience to create a technologically advanced leader with a highly complementary set of capabilities to move and improve the world.”
As part of the deal, GE received $2.9 billion cash-at-closing and a 24.9% stake in the merged business: the cash-at-closing was a crucial motivation behind the deal, according to workers. Although the agreement was a long time in the making, Wabtec ignored bargaining a new agreement with the Erie County plant’s United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE) locals, UE 506 and 618, and refused to let them continue to work under the terms of their existing agreement, effectively locking out approximately 1,700 workers—even though according to UE members, their officers immediately reached out to Wabtec to begin bargaining.
The struggle over work in Lawrence Park isn’t new. In the summer of 2017, GE announced that it would transfer all locomotive production from the Erie County facility to Texas. Shifting work from unionized plants to the overwhelmingly right-to-work, non-union South is a tried-and-true union-busting tactic to drive down worker wages and increase shareholder profits; at the same time, Boeing was engaged in a significant shift of jobs from their heavily unionized Washington facilities to Arizona, a right-to-work state. Unions have resisted through campaigns to organize Southern plants: a task easier said than done.
There are local consequences to the loss of unionized manufacturing. According to an economic impact study published by UE Local 506 in August of 2017, a years-long march of transferred work resulted in nearly $1.6 billion dollars in economic output lost in Erie County, with a broader ripple effect across Pennsylvania’s economy. The company knew what they were doing: as the UE report quotes, GE Transportation was aware of their crucial position in the local economy, and then-CEO Lorenzo Simonelli commented that the numbers showed that “GE Transportation is a vital part of Northwestern Pennsylvania[.]”
And it’s a continuation of a long story in Pennsylvania. Steel mill closures in the 1980s created soaring unemployment in Western Pennsylvania, with levels as high as 28% in Beaver County. Since the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was signed in 1994, 1-in-3 jobs—over 300,000 total, and approximately 6% of total job losses nationwide—have left Pennsylvania, driving up income inequality in a state with a minimum wage languishing at the federal floor. Union membership has plummeted alongside the crash in Pennsylvania manufacturing, making secure blue collar employment with decent wages and benefits a rare commodity.
But according to Brad McCurdy, workers are drawing a line in the sand.
McCurdy is a licensed journeyman electrician and a rank-and-file member of UE Local 506. He works in the power house at the plant, and has been with the company for fourteen years.
“All we’ve been asking for,” said McCurdy, “is give us a thirty day, or even a sixty day, extension under the current contract that was in place with General Electric, that mind you, two years ago, GE agreed to and signed saying that this was a profitable and good deal for both sides. Now, Wabtec is saying we’re not competitive and underperforming.”
“It’s black and white, union busting 101, and it’s corporate greed at its finest.”
Workers are right to be angry. The terms of Wabtec’s final offer—the one it took months to eventually make—were unacceptable to rank-and-file workers for reasons beyond their own economic security. According to McCurdy, Wabtec is “[selling] our community and our future members and workers and their plant down the river.” In part, he’s referring to Wabtec’s proposal for “two-tiered” wages: a system which would slash starting wages, resulting in new hires making “up to 40% less than the guy next to them” for doing the exact same highly skilled labor. McCurdy was clear: “We don’t think that’s right.”
Two-tier wages have a broader impact on the community stretching beyond the workers on the shop floor. According to a new report commissioned by UE 506, wage reductions would result in millions of dollars lost in the local economy: a negative impact “about the same amount as Wabtec Chief Executive Officer, Raymond Betler’s corporate merger bonus package,” according to UE’s news release. All told, a 40% wage reduction for new hires could cause over $17.3 million lost in labor income across the region, causing a negative economic ripple effect.
It gets worse than just two-tier. Already, workers have lost their pensions and retiree benefits; Wabtec doesn’t offer what GE did. Adding insult to injury, Wabtec is demanding mandatory overtime: a move clearly about eroding workers’ rights on the job, given that according to McCurdy, management “never has to look too hard to find someone to work overtime.” It also strikes directly at the pride union members feel at their activity in the community; the local touts that its members are a key part of the local Erie community—activity enabled by predictable and secure work hours. As McCurdy puts it, “it’s just one more thing that they want to chip away at to gain control.”
So far, many politicians have remained silent. Pennsylvania Senator Bob Casey, Jr., sent Wabtec a letter urging them to reach a fair deal with workers. On the picket line, many workers observed that no politicians—save Vermont Senator and 2020 Presidential contender, Bernie Sanders—seemed to have their backs; as of this writing, no other presumptive 2020 Presidential candidate has commented. Scott Slawson, President of UE 506, spoke to a Sanders rally in Brooklyn following the Senator’s sharp condemnation of Wabtec’s “corporate greed.”
But regardless, the community is standing behind the workers. Local businesses have donated food to the pickets, donations have steadily flowed into the union hall, local teachers’ unions staged a community sit-in in support of the picket lines, and other union workers are turning out in solidarity. As one AFSCME member on the picket put it, “Today it’s them; tomorrow it’s us.” From McCurdy’s vantage point, workers have seen “total strangers, bringing food, bringing coffee, bringing firewood; it’s been overwhelming[.]”
The fight won’t be over today, or tomorrow. Wabtec and UE return to the table today for mediation while pickets continue 24/7; ahead of the meeting, Wabtec released a statement accusing union leadership of spreading “misinformation” and blaming them for what they’re calling a strike, rather than a lockout. Moreover, Wabtec has placed ads in local news denying that workers are locked out and attempting to entice workers to cross the picket lines.
But for the moment, picketing workers have high spirits, the support of their community, and an unusually high profile in the national discussion amidst a now multi-year strike wave. And they’re not backing down any time soon: because ultimately, what’s at stake for workers on the picket is simple, according to McCurdy. “We’re fighting for our future, and we’re fighting for our town’s ability to find family-sustaining jobs.”
C.M. Lewis is union staff in Central Pennsylvania and a member of the Strikewave editorial crew. His opinions are solely his own.