Erie, PA Workers Fight for Decent Pay

Labor and capital are engaged in a major industrial dispute here in the northwest corner of Pennsylvania. On one side is Wabtec Corporation, which runs a massive industrial complex that produces rail locomotives. On the other side are 1,400 workers organized in United Electrical Workers Locals 506 and 618.

Donate to the UE Locals 506 and 618 strike fund!

The strike began on June 22 when the company’s “last, best, and final” offer was overwhelmingly rejected by the membership. On Thursday, July 13, the IMT visited the picket lines, and it was an eye-opening experience! Both sides are digging in for a knock-down, drag-out fight. These workers are angry, determined, and well organized.

On Thursday, July 13, the IMT visited the picket lines. The workers are determined and well organized. / Image: Socialist Revolution

In February and March of 2019, these UE locals carried out a nine-day strike after Wabtec took over the company from General Electric. Wabtec came in swinging and imposed a new take-away contract with major concessions. One of the major concessions was a two-tier setup on wage progression. Under these terms, a new hire started at $20.47 per hour. Now, it takes ten years to advance to full pay. These concessions and a long list of attacks on wages, in plant safety, and overall worsening of conditions forced these workers to say enough is enough!

UE’s union hall is not much more than a stone’s throw from one of the main gates. While visiting the union hall to offer our solidarity, we got a chance to talk with UE 506 Treasurer Bryan Pietrzak. He outlined the main issues involved in the strike.

Union workers haven’t received a raise in nine years. The union demands a wage increase that equals the current rate of inflation, and a progression to full pay over a shorter time period. The company refuses to discuss the progression issue, and the pay offer wouldn’t even keep up with inflation. Meanwhile, Wabtec’s CEO Rafael Santana received $11 million in compensation in 2021.

Wabtec’s proposal on healthcare is even more outrageous. What the company put on the table is a plan that would add a $10,000 medical deductible, and in which the costs and benefits are subject to change at any time during the four-year contract. As one striker told us on the picket line, “Who’s going to vote for that!” On top of this, the company wants to contract out more than 200 union jobs, relating to jitney and forklift drivers. This would not only create worse conditions for these workers, but would diminish the strength of the union.

Currently, there is a backlog of dozens of grievances waiting for arbitration. Wabtec’s strategy is to deny any wrongdoing and force the union into spending tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees, thus bleeding the union’s treasury. In response to this, the union is demanding the right to strike over local issues. This right to strike over grievances had been lost when Wabtec acquired the industrial complex from General Electric.

Looking to the future, the union is calling on Wabtec—which builds diesel locomotives—to also start building battery-electric locomotives. This transition would be better for the environment and create thousands of related jobs for the surrounding area.

Striking workers face a company determined to weaken or destroy their union. Wabtec has hired the notorious union-busting Jones Day law firm. In addition, Pinkerton “security” is stationed at entrance gates recording all picket activity.

Striking workers face a company determined to weaken or destroy their union. / Image: UE

The company is attempting to get production started with scab labor. Scabs are brought in buses into the plant on a daily basis. These scabs receive rates of pay superior to those of the striking workers and are housed at the Avalon Hotel and Convention Center in downtown Erie at Wabtec’s expense. Union pickets have also been picketing in front of the Avalon Hotel.

While restricted from stopping traffic entering and leaving the plant, pickets have significantly slowed movement into and out of the facility. On Monday morning, July 17, the union reported that two strikers were hit by a vehicle while walking the picket line. This is at least the second time pickets have been hit, but there have been no serious injuries so far.

UE Locals 506 and 618 have received growing solidarity from area unions and the local working class. However, much more is needed to help back up these strikers for the long haul.

All trade unionists and class-conscious individuals should get out the word about this important struggle. Show your solidarity! It is greatly appreciated. Solidarity messages and financial support is being received at the union hall. UE Local 506, 3923 Main St., Lawrence Park, Pa. 16511. An injury to one is an injury to all! A victory for the UE workers here will strengthen labor everywhere!

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