Workers Who Waged the Biggest Trump-Era Manufacturing Strike Just Struck a Deal—Here’s What It Says

Saurav Sarkar June 27, 2019

Workers held an informational picket outside Wabtec's locomotive plant in Erie, Pennsylvania, as their interim agreement neared expiration. (Photo: UE.)

This arti­cle first appeared in Labor Notes.

Three months after the largest man­u­fac­tur­ing strike of the Trump pres­i­den­cy so far, loco­mo­tive plant work­ers in Erie, Penn­syl­va­nia, have a deal. Elec­tri­cal Work­ers (UE) Locals 506 and 618 rat­i­fied a four-year con­tract on June 12.

In a qual­i­fied vic­to­ry, the 1,700 mem­bers con­ced­ed a two-tier wage struc­ture with a 10-year pro­gres­sion for new hires to reach par­i­ty with cur­rent work­ers, but beat back the company’s demands for a harsh­er ver­sion of two-tier and numer­ous oth­er concessions.

We’ve man­aged to pre­serve a lot of what we had,” said UE Local 506 Pres­i­dent Scott Slaw­son. He added, how­ev­er, There were some gives on the union side for sure — there’s no two ways about it.”

Wabtec, which took over the plant in Feb­ru­ary fol­low­ing its pur­chase of GE Trans­porta­tion, had threat­ened to move work out of Erie if the union refused a low­er wage scale.

Thou­sands of jobs have been elim­i­nat­ed at the plant since 1955. In 2017, GE vowed to move all loco­mo­tive pro­duc­tion to Fort Worth, Texas, where it opened a nonunion plant in 2013. But those plans nev­er panned out, as the Fort Worth plant strug­gled to hire and retain enough skilled work­ers, with qual­i­ty suf­fer­ing as a result. Work has been mov­ing back to the Erie plant over the last year.

The new agree­ment not only main­tains the exist­ing jobs at the plant but also guar­an­tees 100 new posi­tions in the Erie fac­to­ry by the end of the con­tract. UE also beat back Wabtec’s demands to insti­tute manda­to­ry over­time and hire up to 20 per­cent of the plant’s work­force as nonunion temps.

Four hun­dred six­ty pre­vi­ous­ly laid-off work­ers will be giv­en pref­er­en­tial treat­ment in hir­ing as jobs come open — an impor­tant gain in the face of Wabtec’s claim that it had no oblig­a­tion to work­ers who were laid off by GE, not Wabtec. How­ev­er, while they will main­tain their senior­i­ty, they will come back on the new, low­er pay scale.

The com­pa­ny and the union com­pro­mised on reor­ga­niz­ing to 31 job clas­si­fi­ca­tions; pre­vi­ous­ly, work­ers had 43 clas­si­fi­ca­tions, which Wabtec was attempt­ing to reduce to 17. UE argued the reduc­tion would endan­ger work­er safety.

The union main­tains the right to strike based on trans­fer or sub­con­tract­ing of work that results in per­ma­nent lay­offs, or on a fail­ure by the com­pa­ny to resolve griev­ances in a time­ly manner.

Wabtec Takeover

Wabtec — short for West­ing­house Air­brake Tech­nolo­gies — bought the $4 bil­lion-a-year GE Trans­porta­tion divi­sion last year, dou­bling the size of the com­pa­ny overnight.

The pur­chase led to the ear­ly ter­mi­na­tion of UE’s nation­al con­tract with GE. The Erie plant was the last fac­to­ry cov­ered under the 70-year-old agree­ment; GE had spun off the oth­er fac­to­ries’ work in an ongo­ing series of cor­po­rate recon­fig­u­ra­tions, or out­sourced it, large­ly to nonunion plants in the U.S. or overseas.

When the sale was final­ized in Feb­ru­ary, the new own­er uni­lat­er­al­ly stopped offer­ing a pen­sion and retiree health care, and imposed a host of oth­er con­ces­sions, includ­ing manda­to­ry over­time and two-tier wages start­ing as low as $16.75 an hour. That prompt­ed a nine-day strike by Locals 506 and 618, end­ing with a 90-day inter­im agree­ment which restored the terms of the union’s pre­vi­ous con­tract with GE while the par­ties nego­ti­at­ed the new four-year deal.

Dur­ing those three months, Locals 506 and 618 took a num­ber of actions to pres­sure the com­pa­ny. Work­ers dec­o­rat­ed their lock­ers with num­bers count­ing down the days until the end of the inter­im agree­ment. They held pick­ets before work. They joined forces with UE Local 610, which rep­re­sents work­ers at oth­er Wabtec facil­i­ties, to ral­ly in Wilmerd­ing, Penn­syl­va­nia, where Wabtec is head­quar­tered. And the union and its allies pick­et­ed Wabtec’s share­hold­er meet­ing in Pittsburgh.

Wabtec even­tu­al­ly moved off its demand for a per­ma­nent sec­ond tier. The company’s revised pro­pos­al would have start­ed work­ers off at $17 an hour, with an 18-year pro­gres­sion to reach the top tier. But ulti­mate­ly, with the threat of anoth­er strike loom­ing, the union was able to shrink the pro­gres­sion to 10 years, and boost start­ing pay to $20.47 for the low­est clas­si­fi­ca­tion. Exist­ing work­ers on the low­est job clas­si­fi­ca­tion cur­rent­ly earn $31.49.

This decade-long grow-in is sim­i­lar to the Auto Work­ers’ com­pro­mise with the Big 3 automak­ers, where hires after 2007 take eight years to reach wage par­i­ty with pre-2007 hires. A key dif­fer­ence, though, is that these auto work­ers remain in a per­ma­nent Tier 2 when it comes to ben­e­fits. Every­one at the Erie plant will get the same ben­e­fits, and those in the low­er tier will actu­al­ly pay 20 per­cent less in premiums.

Jobs Sore­ly Needed

The 10-year pro­gres­sion is not some­thing that peo­ple want­ed to hap­pen, but the com­pa­ny would not let that go,” said UE Gen­er­al Pres­i­dent Peter Knowl­ton. He believes that if the union had held out on the issue, it would have been forced to go on anoth­er strike — this one self-defeat­ing. The union would have lost com­mu­ni­ty sup­port, he said, and ulti­mate­ly would have left 460 already laid-off work­ers with­out a job to come back to because Wabtec was claim­ing it had no respon­si­bil­i­ty to them.

The good-pay­ing jobs at Wabtec’s Erie plant are cru­cial not only to union mem­bers and their fam­i­lies, but also to the community.

Locat­ed between Buf­fa­lo and Cleve­land, Erie falls square­ly in the Rust Belt, and its for­tunes mir­ror those of sim­i­lar cities. It was once a proud man­u­fac­tur­ing hub, but fac­to­ry relo­ca­tions and clo­sures have sapped jobs and peo­ple. The pop­u­la­tion is 96,000, down from a peak of 131,000 in 1950. And the city is poor, with a medi­an house­hold income of just $35,800.

Wabtec is one of the area’s largest man­u­fac­tur­ers and it still pays a fam­i­ly-sus­tain­ing wage,” said Slaw­son. I think there’s a relief in the com­mu­ni­ty — we found a way, we found a path, hope­ful­ly for the future of Erie and Erie County.”

He is care­ful to note that this is the union’s first con­tract with a new employ­er, and the union will have to stay on its toes with Wabtec.

We had 82 years of inter­pre­ta­tion with GE,” he said. I think both sides are going to go through some grow­ing pains over the next four years.”

Still, he’s opti­mistic about the plant’s future, cit­ing the high­ly skilled work­force and the pos­si­bil­i­ty that Wabtec could shift addi­tion­al work to the 4.5 mil­lion-acre complex.

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