UE’s Long Strike Against Wabtec Comes to an End

I propose to fight it out on this line if it takes all summer.

—Ulysses S. Grant to Secretary of War Edwin Stanton during the Battle of Spotsylvania, May 11, 1864

Since June 22, UE Locals 506 and 618 have been locked in battle with Wabtec in an important labor dispute. The 1,400 union workers finally returned to work on September 5, having won a new contract. As these workers returned to the job, the so-called “replacement workers” (scabs) packed up their bags and headed home. No real production took place in the struck locomotive building industrial complex during the strike. The only point of their presence in the factory was as a threat to the striking workers. In response to their being inside the plant, an inflatable rat was often seen outside on the union picket line.

Wabtec spent millions trying to break this strike, but they could not defeat the workers. This strike was organized, the members were ready, and it was fought out on the picket line all summer long.

The terms of the contract were an improvement over Wabtec’s “last, final, and best offer.” After a recommendation of ratification for approval by the union leadership, the majority of the locals’ membership voted to accept the terms of the agreement.

The terms of the contract were an improvement over Wabtec’s “last, final, and best offer.” / Image: Socialist Revolution

The new contract provides for wage increases for the workers. This includes an immediate raise of 3.65% for all employees plus a $1,500 signing bonus for the first year. That wage increase will be followed by raises in June over the next three years of 3%, 3.25% and 3%. The agreement also included a cost-of-living adjustment, or COLA, of 1% per hour of every .017429 of 1% increase in the Consumer Price Index. Given the present rate of inflation, COLA is necessary in all contracts.

The contract maintains a ten-year progressive wage scale that starts new employees at a lower wage and gradually raises their pay to match the wages of so-called legacy employees. Not doing away with this concession, which was conceded by the union in past negotiations, is a serious problem. Having workers standing side-by-side doing the same work for different wages must be fought against in future contracts. Because of the years of retreat by the unions, two-tiered wage scales have become commonplace over the last thirty years. This contract also maintained the right of the union to strike over local grievance issues, which was important and is generally rare in most union contracts that exist today.

Medical benefits remain about the same as before the strike, but will be up for renewed bargaining in two years. This is before the contract as a whole expires. This issue is the “can that was kicked down the road.”  The important issue of medical care, which the employers hang like a sword of Damocles over the workers’ heads, must be dealt with directly. Organized labor needs to unite to fight for a national health care system free at the point of service for all. Only in this way can the threat of losing healthcare during a strike be ended.

UE Locals 506 and 618 have a proud tradition of providing solidarity both financially and materially to area unions. During this battle, solidarity was given to striking workers by many unions, not only in the Erie area, but throughout the entire region. Spirited rallies were held to boost morale and a feeling of being in a common struggle against greed was felt at the rallies and on the picket line.

Many local workers stopped by the picket line to offer their support. Sometimes ordinary folk brought snacks, water, and other refreshments. Often cars passing by honked their horns in support. This solidarity gave a boost to the spirits of the strikers, especially during the sweltering, smoky days of a very hot summer.

Senator John Fetterman
At different union organized rallies, nationally known Democrats like Fetterman showed up to grandstand. / Image: Guillermo Romero, Wikimedia Commons

These workers also learned an important political lesson during the strike. Many area workers, disgusted with the Democratic Party, voted for Erie County Executive Brenton Davis. Davis is merely a small-time Trump wannabe. His real colors came out during this strike with his mouthing of Wabtec’s line. He proved himself to be just another “company man.”

At different union organized rallies, local and sometimes nationally known Democrats like US Senator John Fetterman, showed up for grandstanding. This is the same Democratic Party of Joe Biden that pushed an injunction against the right to strike for railroad workers.

Workers need to forget about voting for, or appealing to, either of these two capitalist political parties. We need to create an independent political party of our class, the majority class, the working class!

For veterans of past struggles and workers familiar with the militant fighting spirit that formed the industrial unions in the 1930s, this strike gave a glimpse of what is coming in future labor battles. Every contract is merely a snapshot reflection of the relationship of class forces between the company and the union. After standing toe-to-toe with the company and its enormous resources, both sides have had to call a truce. But it won’t be the last strike and many lessons were learned for the future.

The UE workers could have come out with a bigger victory, if the AFL-CIO on a national level, did not let them fight this alone. This could have been a national battle, with resources being poured in to make sure they achieved a complete victory, linking together other striking workers and those trying to organize a union. However, this did not happen, so the UE workers did the best they could in the given circumstances.

The communists of Socialist Revolution are trying to build a mass party, which will be able to coordinate strikes and turn them into national struggles. The working class is most powerful when it responds as one united force, coast to coast. This will make not only the Wabtec bosses shake in their boots, but the entire US ruling class. Nothing can stop the working class when it is united and on the move. Workers of the World Unite!

J.R. Larsen, a retired former member of USW Local 3199, contributed to this article.

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