Even though strikes are illegal for public sector workers in North Carolina, the difficult and sometimes dangerous work — coupled with low wages and the rising cost of living — led Perry and his co-workers to refuse to get in their trucks to pick up trash on September 6. The action reflects growing labor agitation in the South — a region where union organizing and striking are exceptionally challenging, but workers are nevertheless coming together to improve their working conditions.
UE in the News
The planned appearance of U.S. Sen. John Fetterman seemed to be the spark that drew hundreds of striking union members at Wabtec to Napier Park in Lawrence Park shortly before noon on Monday.
But members of the United Electrical Radio and Machine Workers of America, who have been on strike since June 22, didn't seem to need Fetterman to summon enthusiasm for their cause.
Many of the nearly 1,400 striking union members, who carried signs and wore a variety of strike-themed T-shirts, made a dramatic entrance after walking to the park from their respective picket locations along Franklin Avenue, East Lake Road and Water Street.
July was the hottest month on record — possibly the hottest in the history of human civilization — and August is bringing more scorching temperatures and supercharged storms. Amid this climate crisis, 1,400 locomotive builders and clerical workers on strike in Erie, Penn. are modeling how unions — and workers walking off the job — can make climate justice demands of an employer.
The United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE) union has long been pushing for a transition to cleaner locomotives, in keeping with the spirit of a Green New Deal. UE general president Carl Rosen says the transition to clean locomotives fits with UE’s commitment to environmental justice and fighting climate change, and it could mean new union jobs including at the Wabtec Corp. locomotive factory in Erie, Pennsylvania.
"[Fetterman's] bill to allow striking workers to qualify for SNAP benefits would help us immensely in our struggle to make Wabtec provide family-supporting wages and benefits and hold them accountable to their workforce," Scott Slawson, the president of UE Local 506, said. Slawson represents the production workers at the Wabtec plant outside Erie, Pennsylvania, who make up the vast majority of the workers who are on strike.
"Workers should never be forced to choose between standing up for what's right and feeding their families," he said.
UE General President Carl Rosen also told Newsweek, "For decades, corporations have had the upper hand against workers, and it has resulted in stagnating wages, widening inequality and rampant corporate greed. Senator Fetterman's bill would be an important step in restoring power to workers so they can fight for a decent standard of living."
In an op-ed posted today on GoErie.com, Senator John Fetterman (D-PA) writes, “let's be clear: what’s good for workers is good for America. So when workers stand up and strike, I believe it’s our duty to have their backs. ... I understand that it’s thanks to unions that countless Pennsylvania families can put food on the table every night. That’s why I always have and always will go the mat to fight for unions and the workers they represent.”
Slawson explained why employees felt it was time to go on strike as they were not receiving fair wages for the hard work they perform each day. Newer employees suffered the most because they were paid 37 percent less than employees who had spent more time at the company. When their workers went on strike, management was unable to perform the simplest employee tasks, he added.
A number of key issues still divide the two parties. [UE Local 506 President Scott] Slawson said those issues include general wage increases, health care, the right to strike over grievances and the progressive wage scale that initially pays new employees at a lower rate.
From the union’s perspective, he said, the company still has a long way to go.
Building more [Tier 4] locomotives in Erie “would be a benefit to the company, to the community we live in and obviously a benefit to the economy as well,” Slawson said. “Wabtec preaches that they’re all about making the transition into greener jobs and greener technologies, but they just kind of flat out ignored us at the bargaining table with those demands. They preach that they want to become a green company, but they don’t want to partner with the union who’s driving toward the same outcome.”
After weeks of picketing, UE Local 506 and 618 workers on strike got a taste of the islands with a free concert. Robbie York, known in the music world as Lopaka Rootz, looked to provide a positive boost of energy through his playing.
Meanwhile at the other entrance of Wabtec on Franklin Avenue, the Benedictine Sisters hosted a silent peace walk, showing their solidarity with those on strike.