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Building 12, Erie GE: Young Worker Militancy in the 1970s

15 December, 2014

At a November 1968 class for stewards and local officers in Latrobe, PA, James Matles, one of UE’s founding officers and then secretary-treasurer, talked about how the youth rebellion of the 1960s was beginning to affect industry and unions. “The young people in the shops are involved in a revolt of their own, which is growing day by day… The young worker doesn’t give a damn for the company’s shop rules and he drives the foremen crazy. He comes to work when he feels like it and quits the job at the drop of a hat…” Matles described how young workers were voting down contract settlements and voting out old union officers. While the leaders of most national unions saw this trend as dangerous, and some UE local leaders felt threatened by the youth revolt, to Matles it was a welcome development. “If we combine the experience of the oldtimers with the militancy of the young, we will have an unbeatable combination,” he said.

Nowhere in UE did the young worker rebellion have more impact than in Building 12 at the Erie GE plant, where workers built transit rail cars in the 1970s. With federal subsidies, in 1970 GE expanded Building 12 from a small warehouse into sprawling factory, and then hired a workforce mostly in their 20s. There were as many as 1,800 of them at one time, around 1,000 for much of the nine-year history of Transit. Many of them were recently-returned veterans of the Vietnam War. GE set up Building 12 with the idea of paying lower wages than what UE members were paid to manufacture locomotives and other products elsewhere in the huge Erie plant, and of managing the workforce more autocratically.

But the young workers GE hired for the new Transit business had very different ideas. Together, in the first three years of Building 12’s operation, they not only essentially taught themselves how to build transit cars, but also built a workplace culture that combined youthful rebellion with old-fashion union solidarity. They devised creative new tactics of their own, and made use of the tools provided to them by the UE-GE National Contract – the right to strike over grievances, the right to work or not work overtime – and the seniority, wages, and working conditions won by Local 506 members over the preceding 35 years.

The heart of Building 12 and the center of worker militancy was the assembly floor. There, in nine work stations and on four lines of railroad track that stretched the length of the building, workers transformed the empty stainless steel shells of rail cars into beautiful high-tech vehicles that would rapidly transport countless thousands of commuters, in comfort and safety and with energy efficiency, from their suburban homes to the urban center and back home, every day for many years. A transit car is an extremely complex machine, and UE members built them from scratch, installing insulation, wheel trucks, traction motors, electrical controls, the pantograph that draws electric power from cables above the tracks, thousands of feet of wiring, piping, plumbing, airbrake systems, heating and air conditioning, communications systems, windows, doors, flooring, lighting and seating.

The shining rail cars built in Building 12 supplied transit systems in the Northeast, including the New Haven Line of the Metro North Railroad that connects Connecticut with Manhattan; the Southeast Pennsylvania Transit Authority (SEPTA) in the Philadelphia region; and commuter rail lines then run by the Erie-Lackawanna Railroad for the State of New Jersey.

I worked at Erie GE from 1973 to 1986 in various buildings, including two stints in Building 12 in the late 1970s. But I wasn’t in the building in the early years, when the battles were fought that made Building 12 such a good place to work. So two days before Thankgiving, I met with six GE retirees who were among the young militants who shook things up in Building 12 in the early ‘70s. It was a productive session of remembering the good old days.

(Left to right: Phil Fish, Tom Trost, Harry Bland, Mel Knauff, John Majewski and Joe Caspar)

Joe Caspar was hired into Building 12 in 1972 at age 22, right out of the military. He worked in Transit until a big layoff in 1976. He worked in a variety of other buildings at GE until he retired in 2009. Phil Fish, another Vietnam vet, was also hired in 1972 into Building 12. He later worked in Building 10 locomotive assembly and various other buildings. He was a union steward at Station 6 and says of his time in Building 12, “It was great to be there but it was a struggle the entire time.” Phil also retired in 2009.

Harry Bland started in the summer of 1972 at age 20, “just a kid.” Laid off in 1975 or 76, he transferred to jobs elsewhere in the Erie plant and made it back to Building 12 later in the decade to work on last order, rebuilding Amtrak Metroliners. He retired from GE at the end of 2012 with 40½ years of service. “I used to complain, but looking back I really appreciate the jobs I had in 12.”

Mel Knauff, better known as Cap, started in Building 12 in 1972 at age 22. “I’d been working in Building 17 running a punch press and a shear,” where he was hired after serving in Vietnam. He transferred into 12 after a layoff in Building 17. “I stayed there pretty much from beginning to end, was a steward most of the time, and raised hell.” Knauff was a good friend of Craig Engel, the first chief steward in Building 12 who played a big role in building a strong union there. Engel died on Easter Morning 2014 at age 68. 

John Majewski was hired by GE at age 17, “31 days before the 1969 strike,” into Building 63, Speed Variator. “I was on the picket line” during the 102-day national strike of GE workers. “When Transit started, in ’70 or ’71, I got a job in there. I had a year and a half service, so I was a kid. I started there on the first New Haven car, the building was empty. In ’79 I moved over to Building 10 and spent the rest of my career over there.” Tom Trost was hired at age 19 in 1972 and worked in Transit until 1978. After that he worked in Buildings 2, 6, 7 and 18-Control, retiring with 41½ years service.

STRIKING FOR PAY AND JUSTICE

Building 12 workers went on strike several times, especially in the early years. In the first big strike, which lasted a few days in March 1974, the core issue was pay, although there was an accumulation of other grievances. Tom Trost says, “We wanted to have the same pay rate as Building 10,” where workers assembled locomotives. “So of course we thumped the ground a little bit and we got madder and madder and finally we took a walk.”

Workers in Building 12 were paid dayrate (straight hourly pay) at comparatively low rates. The strike was solid in Building 12, and the obvious willingness of workers to take more action convinced the company to bargain. Within the next couple of months the officers of Local 506 negotiated what the Local 506 Union News called “a stop-gap or temporary” incentive pay plan, and further talks followed to finalize a pay system similar to that in Building 10.

Under the group incentive pay in Building 10, on top of their base pay, a group of workers were paid incentive rates (or “prices”) to complete a set of tasks. Workers on “group piecework” pool this incentive pay, which reflects the teamwork needed to build a locomotive or transit car.

But the group incentive system in 12 remained somewhat makeshift, with room for negotiation between work groups and their bosses over how some tasks would be paid. Trost recalled that “the upper stations” – the beginning of the assembly process – weren’t paid as well as the lower stations, because workers with more direct control over shipping the product had more leverage. Majewski agreed. “I was the timekeeper (the worker who kept track of hours and pay for the group) on the shipping crew. I wouldn’t say we held them hostage,” but he remembered a manager, desperate to get some cars completed and shipped by the end of the month, asking him what it would take. “I said we’re not making any money, double our prices and we’ll get the cars out, and then we’ll talk after that. So he agreed to double the prices.”

Workers put in a lot of overtime voluntarily, but Trost recalled a walkout over the company trying to impose 12-hour days. “We said no, you can’t do that, it’s 8 hour days.” He added, “There was always some sort of problems there that we found a way to have a strike. Some people were being treated better than others.”

“If they disciplined someone unfairly,” said Majewski, “we would be united and we would all go. If we thought something was really unfair, we would all walk out. I would say that happened four to six times.” To Phil Fish, “That was the one good thing about working there. They always talk about Building 10 having a good strong union, and trust me, they did.” But Fish thinks Building 12 workers were even more militant, in part because they were young and had less to lose, and they knew there were other decent-paying unionized manufacturing jobs available in Erie. “That was one of the advantages we had at that time that people don’t have today.” But he fears that some workers today, “don’t realize that if they don’t stand up to the company for what they think is right, they’re never going to get their due.”

“I could never understand,” said Joe Caspar, an incident a couple of years ago when, he said, the company ignored seniority in moving people from one building to another. At the time he said to workers he knew, “How can you let that go? Seniority’s got to mean something, it always meant something to us, even though we had none back then.”

I also spoke to Mary Stewart Flowers, a retired Local 618 officer who was hired in Building 12 in 1973 as a Local 506 member. “They were strong, they were together, especially within each work station. Plus, with the group piecework, you have to work together and instead of being supervised the group is managing itself.” Comparing Building 12 in those days to her later work experiences at GE, she said, “It just seemed to be more together. There was more solidarity. I think the unionism was much stronger back then.”

CREATIVE RESISTANCE

Trost recalled an attempt by the company to monitor the workers with color-coded bump caps. As a safety measure, everyone on the assembly floor wore light plastic helmets called bump caps. These were especially needed by employees who worked under the cars. The company decided to have workers in each area wear a different color cap, so bosses could easily spot a worker away from his or her assigned work station. “Mel and I were working third shift, and Engel says, ‘We have an assignment tonight. There’s boxes on the receiving dock with these bump caps, we’re going to put them on a cart to send them to Building 10, and they’re going to put them in locomotives that are going to India.’ So we put all these boxes on a flatbed, I don’t know where they went from there.” The union’s backup plan, said Fish, was for everyone to swap their new bump caps with workers from other stations, “so they wouldn’t know who was wearing what.” The company dropped the plan to color code people’s headgear.

Another attempt by the company to monitor individual workers was recalled by Fish. He was summoned to the office of General Foreman Dave Wescott, and when he saw three other foremen in the room, he immediately asked for his chief steward. Wescott refused his request for union representation, and then told him, “I want an individual record of everything you do for the entire day.” Fish observes, “We knew this was going to come, that eventually they’d want to monitor and find out who the slackers are. But that’s not the way it works on group piecework.”

Fish replied to the boss that he couldn’t answer him until he consulted with his chief steward. Wescott pressed for an answer whether or not he would do as he was told, and Fish repeated, “I don’t know.” Wescott then screamed that he was fired and called the guards to escort him off the property. Fish went straight to the union hall, “and an hour later, I’m back in the building, and I didn’t lose any time or anything. But that was their first attempt to get us to knuckle under to intimidation. It didn’t take very long for the word to spread, and people’s reaction was, ‘If he’s gone, we’re all gone.’ So they dropped that idea real quick.”

“It was sad that the whole plant didn’t follow our lead,” said John Majewski, remembering that most of the other buildings did not join Building 12’s grievance strikes. (An exception was Building 63, which struck in sympathy with Building 12 through the persistance of its stewards.) “They thought we were young punks and dope smokers,” said Harry Bland. Majewski added, “They thought we were just young radical kids and they didn’t want to ruffle any feathers in their building, even though we were all the same union.” He added that while Building 12 had 1,000 members or more, in the plant as a whole there were are many as 17,000 workers during the 1970s.

Fish blames the conservatism of the local union leadership of that time for the lack of plantwide solidarity, but he also thinks that the long strike in 1969-70 drained some militancy out of workers who went through that. “I think a lot of the guys who went through the ’69 strike and had five or 10 years service or more, didn’t want to go through anything like that again.”

THE LEGACY OF TRANSIT

“Remember when we got hired there,” asked John Majeski, “they said this is the future, the country’s going to go rapid transit, high-speed rail. You’re going to retire out of this building. Well nine years later we watched them close the doors.”

After it was underbid by Bombardier in 1976 to build transit cars for MARTA (the Metropolitan Atlanta Regional Transit Authority), GE stopped competing for orders to manufacture new cars. By 1980, when the Metroliner rebuild work was done, GE shut down the Transit business.

Betsy Potter, a retired former officer of UE Local 618, the salary workers union, worked in the blueprint office of Building 12 in the ‘70s. She was hired in 1972 at age 20, was the last person laid off from Building 12, and she too looks back fondly on her years there. “The bonds we created through UE lasted through our entire careers at General Electric. When Building 12 closed, I thought it was the biggest mistake they made.” She said GE, “should have gone after Baltimore,” which was about to purchase transit cars. “We were all tooled, and we were building beautiful cars.” She says the New York subway system was also on the verge of replacing much of its fleet. “GE should have stayed in transit cars.” 

The transit business meant jobs for UE members outside Building 12. The electrical controls and traction motors were made in Buildings 2, 6 and 18 of the Erie GE plant; the airbrake components were made by members of Local 610 in Wilmerding, PA, and the seats were made by UE Local 1114 members at Coach & Car in Chicago.  

But rather than stay in the transit business, GE paved over the railroad tracks and converted Building 12 for other uses. The building today employs about 300 workers building radiator cabs and main cabs for locomotives and working on off-highway vehicle motors (OHV).

In waves of layoffs, bumping and transfers that followed the end of each order, Building 12 workers were dispersed throughout the plant. “We were everywhere, and that changed the whole union,” says Mel Knauff, spreading the Building 12 culture of unity and militancy. In 1977 and the early '80s the local elected new, more progressive leadership, which encouraged more involvement of young members. In those years the local strengthened its commitment to rank-and-file democracy and solidarity among all members. In 1986, through the local constitution’s trial procedure, the members even removed five executive board members because they went on a trip to Japan with the company in violation of a membership vote – a powerful affirmation that the members run this union.

Those changes are the legacy of what young workers did in Building 12 in the ‘70s. The lesson of those years for today, for Young Activists and all UE members, is that when the energy, creativity and rebelliousness of young workers is channeled into rank-and-file unionism, good things happen.

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