Many people who work hard in full time jobs take a dental plan for granted. Many people who work hard in full-time jobs assume they will get more than a 25-cent-per-hour raise each year. But a group of workers at a cement plant in Erie, Pennsylvania have spent two months on strike trying to win those basic things — and their fight is far from over.
About 40 workers at the Erie Strayer cement factory are members of Ironworkers Local 851. The company is family-owned, and has been unionized since the 1940s. The union contract expired on April 1. The union spent months at the negotiating table, seeking a fairly modest package of gains. The company refused. On October 4, the workers went on strike, becoming (though they didn’t know it at the time) part of the #Striketober wave that was to garner national attention. They have been on the picket lines in Erie 24/7 since then.
Tracy Cutright, the business rep for Local 851 who has been leading negotiations, says that 28 of the 41 employees in the bargaining unit are still out on the picket line. Five union members have crossed the picket line and gone back to work. (“They get yelled at every day,” Cutright notes.) Like many people in many different jobs this year, the Erie Strayer workers simply decided they were not going to take it any more.
“The guys are dug in. They’ve been clamoring for a strike since April 1. They wanted something done,” Cutright says. “They’ve been dealing with this company for years. They knew their meager demands were going to result in this.”
Indeed, their demands do not seem greedy. John Bielak, the executive director of organizing and manufacturing for the International Ironworkers, says that the strikers have three main asks for their contract: a fair wage, meaning raises that exceed the 25 cents annually that the workers have grown used to getting; a fair attendance policy, because workers say they have received disciplinary “points” for things like attending funerals and taking bereavement leave; and a dental plan, which they have never had — despite the fact that most of the union’s shops of similar size do have dental plans.
“These guys were working seven days a week through the pandemic. They sacrificed their time, and their effort, and their safety. They were deemed, right out of the gate, ‘essential workers’ by Erie Strayer,” Bielak says. “They stepped up. Now the workers need the company, and the company has walked away from these workers.”
Erie Strayer did not return a request for comment for this story.
Dave Miller has worked at the Erie Strayer plant for 16 years. That’s a long time to go without a dental plan. “Every time we need it, I have to pay for it out of pocket,” he says. “That doesn’t come cheap.” He has a wife and three children. One of his children just got braces. The motivation for him to continue to stand on that picket line is very real.
Miller has picked up a job at Target on the side to earn some money for the holiday season. Others are doing odd jobs here and there, he says. The Ironworkers provide strike benefits, but they are small compared to normal wages. Regardless, he says that morale is good — that all of those days on the picket line have brought the people together, and have helped him spend time talking to coworkers he would never otherwise get to know. People in Erie come by all the time and bring the strikers coffee, donuts and pizza. But for all of the warm feelings in the community, the strike is dragging on because the workers stubbornly believe that they are being screwed. They worked through the pandemic, and they are not being given anything at all in return.
“It’s a slap in the face,” says Tim Donnell, another striking worker, speaking from the picket line. In his 16 years at Strayer, he says he has never gotten a merit raise above what was mandated in the union contract. “I do everything I can for this company, and they stab me in the back.”
The strikers say they believe that the strike is likely to continue, at the very least, into the new year. The company has pulled in managers and other existing staffers to do some work in the plant, but has not budged on the dental plan, which it apparently considers to be worth all of this strife. As the Erie Strayer strike creeps into its third month, the dozens of workers on the picket line are experiencing both sides of participating in an unusually public nationwide strike wave: On the one hand, they are part of something historic, and can draw inspiration from the thousands of other workers across the country who have gone on strike this year along with them; on the other hand, they are relatively small, and they wonder when they will get their turn to feel victorious.
Dave Miller watched the John Deere strikers win a contract, and he watched the Kellogg’s strike — which started about the same time that Erie Strayer’s did — finally reach a tentative agreement last week. He is happy for them. And impatient for himself. “They’re getting good deals,” he says. “But we can’t get more than 25 cents out of them. I’m like, ‘you guys are lucky!’”
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Hamilton Nolan is a labor writer for In These Times. He has spent the past decade writing about labor and politics for Gawker, Splinter, The Guardian, and elsewhere. You can reach him at Hamilton@InTheseTimes.com.