Top Five UE NEWS Stories of 2023

December 31, 2023

This week on social media, we’ve been counting down the top five UE NEWS stories of 2023. Here they are:

#5 Green Locomotive Project Gets National Attention

UE Local 1177 President Larry Hopkins at a rail yard
Photo of UE Local 1177 President Larry Hopkins by Sarah Lazare.

UE’s Green Locomotive Project to create good union jobs, address climate change, and clean up pollution in rail yard communities burst onto the national scene this year with coverage in national publications, a new report about how green locomotives mean thousands of new jobs in Western Pennsylvania and throughout the country, and testimony in the U.S. Senate.

UE Locals 506 and 618’s leadership of the project helped build support for their strike. Green locomotive supporters joined strikers at Wabtec corporate headquarters in Pittsburgh, came to the picket lines in Erie, and leafleted Wabtec facilities in North Carolina and rail yards in California in solidarity with the strike.

In May, UE leaders testified before the Environmental Protection Agency about the impact of locomotive emissions on their lives and their communities, and in November the EPA issued a new ruling giving states more power to regulate emissions. The Green Locomotive Project was featured at UE’s 78th convention in September, and Green Locomotive Project leaders and staff also participated in conferences on green worker organizing and labor communications.

The Green Locomotive Project has big plans for the spring — make sure you are signed up to get updates here.

#4 First contracts at MIT and Refresco

MIT graduate workers rally with signs reading MIT Works Because We Do
UE Local 256 (MIT-GSU) members kick off negotiations for their first contract with a rally on September 12, 2022. Photo: Kai Jia.

UE locals settled two important first contracts this year. In Cambridge, Massachusetts, UE Local 256 (MIT-GSU) negotiated a first contract with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology which sets new standards for graduate worker contracts. It includes strong language to address harassment and discrimination, a “groundbreaking” health and safety article which establishes protections that go beyond basic OSHA regulations, and provisions granting graduate workers the same intellectual property rights as faculty and staff — a first for U.S. grad worker unions.

The contract provides MIT grad workers with dental insurance for the first time, along with raises of 5.4, 3.5 and 3.25 percent, a $1200 lump sum payment for international workers to pay for visa fees, a needs-based childcare grant, and a public-transportation subsidy. It also includes a union security clause requiring all workers covered by the contract to contribute to keeping the union strong.

Read the UE NEWS article written by Local 256 members Mingjia Chen, Sophie Coppieters 'T Wallant, and Belinda Li about their first contract victory here.

In Wharton, New Jersey, more than 200 workers at the Refresco bottling plant settled a first contract in June, two full years after they first joined UE in June 2021. The members of UE Local 115, most of whom are immigrants, overcame a brutal union-busting campaign and a company that refused to recognize their union, forcing them to vote in a second NLRB election in May 2022.

The new contract, won after 11½ months of negotiations, includes significant pay increases, strong health and safety language, and protections against workers being forced to work 12-hours shifts, all major issues that fueled the organizing campaign.

Read more about the first contract struggle at Refresco here

#3 Durham Sanitation Workers Stand Down, Win $6.5 Million

On the morning of Wednesday, September 6, solid waste workers for the city of Durham, North Carolina refused to load their trucks. The workers were demanding that the city make up for the two years their step pay plan was essentially frozen during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The “stand down” was successful in winning $6.5 million in bonuses for city workers, after six days of refusing to work, support from the community, and a month of organizing pressure on the city council. 

“This is a huge victory for all city workers,” said John Burwell, a solid waste operator and a member of UE Local 150’s Durham City Workers Union chapter. “$6.5 million in the pockets of the city workers is a major step towards economic justice that we all deserve.”

The dramatic action was only the most visible activity of the Southern Worker Justice Campaign, which continues to organize and win improvements in majority-Black public-sector workplaces throughout North Carolina, where collective bargaining is prohibited, and Virginia, where it must be granted by individual city councils. The UE Research and Education Fund, UE’s nonprofit arm, has been raising money to support the SWJC — help them meet their year-end fundraising goal by making a contribution today.

#2 Ten-Week Strike in Erie Forces Uncooperative Wabtec to the Table

After ten weeks of a hard-fought battle on seven different picket lines and at other locations in Erie and around the country, the 1,400 members of Locals 506 and 618 forced their employer, Wabtec, to improve the contract offer that the members had overwhelmingly rejected on June 22. The UE members voted on August 31 to accept a tentative agreement that was reached between the parties the previous week, ending the strike.

“We are proud of the resolve of the membership over 70 days on the picket line,” said Local 506 President Scott Slawson. “As a result of the action taken by our members, we made both economic and non-economic gains.”

After voting down the company’s last, best and final offer on June 22, the members of the two locals set up picket lines around the massive Wabtec locomotive plant. Support poured in from the Erie community and around the country. Newly-elected UAW President Shawn Fain issued a statement supporting the strikers, Senator Bernie Sanders released a video featuring the voices of UE strikers, and Congresswoman Summer Lee joined striking workers and hundreds of supporters in a rally at Wabtec corporate headquarters in Pittsburgh.

Both the Erie City Council and the Erie County Council unanimously passed resolutions supporting the strikers, and supporters took action in solidarity with the strikers in North Carolina and California. Support also came from outside the country, as five unions representing Wabtec workers on four continents sent letters to Wabtec CEO Rafael Santana expressing their solidarity with the UE members in Erie and demanding that the company settle a fair contract.

UE NEWS coverage of the strike and the settlement, along with links to numerous videos and articles about the strike, can be found on the UE website at

#1 Worker-Led Organizing Brings Over 20,000 Grad Workers at Seven Campuses Into UE

UE organizing campaigns at seven campuses — Northwestern University, Johns Hopkins University, the University of Chicago, Dartmouth College, the University of Minnesota, Stanford University and Cornell University — brought over 20,000 new members into UE this year. All of these organizing campaigns were run by the workers themselves, with minimal assistance from UE staff, and all of them won their labor board elections with margins of over 80 percent. These historic organizing gains were a highlight of UE’s 78th convention, held in September in Pittsburgh.

Graduate workers work in labs and offices and classrooms, performing the labor that makes universities run. They do research, teach, and grade papers. Their wages are rarely sufficient to live on. Many are subjected to harassment by their supervisors, who are often also their academic advisors. All of them need a union, and across the country, they are choosing to join UE.

Not only did the graduate workers on these seven campuses lead their own organizing campaigns, they wrote their own UE NEWS coverage. Hear from some of UE’s newest members in their own words in the following articles:


If you like what you read, please consider subscribing to the UE NEWS — for as little as $5/year you can support great labor journalism and receive the print edition of the UE NEWS four times per year.

You can also sign up to receive monthly UE NEWS Bulletins via email, or follow UE on FacebookTwitterInstagram and YouTube.