After 128 days of tough contract negotiations, including a nine-day strike, 1,700 members of UE Locals 506 and 618 voted to ratify a four-year contract with their new employer Wabtec on June 12. UE members were able to preserve most of the gains that they had won over 82 years of contract negotiations with their former employer General Electric. But it was one hell of a fight.
“There is no such thing as a perfect first contract, but I think for a first contract this is about as good a start as anyone could hope to achieve,” said UE Local 506 President Scott Slawson. “It was due to the overwhelming support we had from our executive board, our membership, our allies as well as our community.”
The UE members work at the former GE Transportation facility in Erie, PA. Wabtec, which is headquartered in Wilmerding, PA, merged with GE Transportation earlier this year.
Company Demands Concessions
As soon as Wabtec took over the 4.5 million square foot locomotive facility on February 25, the company tried to impose concessionary demands including forced overtime, an unworkable grievance procedure, and a massive and permanent pay cut for new hires. Wabtec’s actions triggered a nine-day strike, the largest strike of manufacturing workers since 2016. The State of Pennsylvania ruled the strike a lockout, opening the door for the workers to collect unemployment benefits — but Wabtec appealed that decision.
After returning to work on March 11 under a 90-day interim agreement, the union continued to negotiate, but the company did not make it easy.
Wabtec’s long list of demands included a permanent two-tier wage structure, forced overtime, reductions in premium pay, job consolidations, reductions in paid time off, weakened seniority rights, elimination of Income Extension Aid (IEA) and protected benefits, reduction in the number of years for recall rights from five years to one year, and the ability to use temporary workers for up to 20 percent of the work in the facility. They wanted to weaken the shop steward system and grievance procedure and eliminate the right to strike over grievances, which Locals 506 and 618 have preserved in their contract with GE since their founding.
Wabtec also demanded a management-rights clause which would have given the company the right to do just about anything it wanted at any time, including subcontracting work and changing production and quality standards. If a worker couldn’t meet those new standards, the company could terminate them. Wabtec was also insisting that the two locals have separate agreements.
After the successful end of their nine-day strike, the UE members returned to what could be best described as a prison-like atmosphere. The divisional chief stewards and shop stewards were on lock down. They couldn’t get around to talk with their members. If they left their work area, a supervisor would be right on them. The company broadcast its propaganda throughout the facility 24/7, utilizing its TV monitors, which are located throughout the facility. The workers were constantly inundated with the threat of losing their jobs unless they agreed to the company’s concessionary demands. The workplace atmosphere was similar to what most workers are subjected today during a union organizing campaign.
Wabtec also cranked up its public relations machine, flooding Erie County with its never-ending threats of moving work out of the facility and eliminating hundreds of good-paying jobs, if the workers didn’t accept its demands. The company took out a full-page ad in the Erie Times News to highlight its positions in the negotiations, appropriating UE Local 506’s slogan from its fightback campaign in 2013 to “Keep it Made in Erie” when GE transferred domestic locomotive production to it non-union plant in Fort Worth, TX. The Erie County Chamber of Commerce came to aid of the company, producing a study which showed the economic impact of the 1,700 good paying jobs on the broader community with the implication that the UE members needed to take the concessions to preserve their jobs for the good of the community.
Despite Wabtec’s barrage of threats and intimidation, the UE members never backed down. The divisional chief stewards and shop stewards began to hold lunch time meetings to update their members about the negotiations. Locals 506 and 618 also used their Facebook pages to post regular negotiation updates, which the local media picked up on and used in their news stories about the negotiations. The members wore stickers, buttons and t-shirts to show their support for the negotiating committee. Local 506 produced t-shirts with the slogans: “UE 506: More Powerful than a Locomotive” and “The Company whispers: ‘You can’t withstand the Storm.’ UE replied: ‘We are the Storm!’”
Unity and Militancy Beat Back Concessions
In the end, it was the 1,700 members’ unity and militancy which successfully beat back Wabtec’s concessionary demands.
UE members have played a vital role in the Erie community over the past 82 years, volunteering in many organizations and making financial contributions to many community organizations, including the VA Hospital.
“The community support was incredible,” said Mike Ferritto, UE Local 506 business agent. “We developed a campaign that was directly linked to our community because so many people in our community are directly linked to this facility and UE. There are generations of our members’ families who worked at the facility over the past decades and they could see their connection to our struggle.”
UE Locals 506 and 618 members also supported their brothers and sisters at UE Local 610 who were also in tough contract negotiations with Wabtec at its facilities in Greensburg and Wilmerding, PA. A large delegation of UE members from Erie attended a rally and march in Wilmerding on April 27 to show their support for Local 610, which had mobilized its members to attend the large rally on March 6 outside of Wabtec’s headquarters during the nine-day strike. Wabtec settled the strike later that day.
On May 17, more than 50 UE members and allies from the Pittsburgh-area marched and picketed outside of the Wabtec annual shareholders’ meeting which was being held in the swanky Duquesne Club in Downtown Pittsburgh. A van load of UE members and community allies from Erie traveled to Pittsburgh for the demonstration. They were joined by UE members from Pittsburgh-area locals and the national office and members of Pittsburgh-area unions and community organizations in a boisterous two-hour demonstration, which received media coverage in both Pittsburgh and Erie.
At the shareholders’ meeting, Local 506 executive board member-at-large Matt McCracken was able to speak to one of the shareholders, a German man whose family who held a large amount of Wabtec stock and who was surprised at the conditions Wabtec was attempting to impose on its Erie workforce (labor standards in Germany are among the best in the world, due to the country’s strong labor movement). The shareholders’ action contributed to movement by the company at the negotiating table.
During the last weeks of the negotiations, UE members escalated their tactics, staging lunchtime marches down the center avenue of the facility, ending outside Building 14 where local management is headquartered. The members also did an informational picket outside of the two main gates of the facility, which garnered news media coverage. The end result of the members’ unity and militancy over the last five months was a tentative agreement that the UE negotiating committee could recommend to the Local 506 and Local 618 executive boards and their members for ratification. Although the interim agreement expired at midnight on June 3, negotiations continued under the terms of the agreement and a tentative agreement was reached at 2am on June 6.
“This was a battle for the survival of our local union,” said Ferritto. “This was a direct attack on our viability as a union. We were able to fight back most of the concessions that Wabtec tried to impose on us with their initial terms and conditions. It was a battle to preserve what we had achieved over the years and to be able to continue to function as a viable union.”
“If there is one thing in the contract that we were most disappointed in is that Wabtec would not recognize our laid off members,” said Slawson. Wabtec entered negotiations maintaining that it had zero responsibility for former GE Transportation workers who were still on layoff prior to Wabtec taking over the Erie facility on February 25.
“In the end,” said Slawson, “Wabtec gave us Option A and Option B. Option A was Wabtec would do absolutely nothing for them. Option B was Wabtec would do something for them, but they were going to come back as new hires but with their previous seniority restored. That was Wabtec’s line in the sand. But you best believe that in four years that is going to be a major point of contention in the next round of negotiations.”
While the two locals were able to beat back Wabtec’s main demand for a permanent two-tier wage for new hires, the locals had to agree to an extended 10-year wage progression schedule for new hires, including laid-off UE members who returned to work. Wabtec, however, did agree that the laid off UE members would be “pref-hired” in order of their seniority before the company hires new workers off the street.
In addition to defeating permanent two-tier wages, the UE members were able to beat back Wabtec’s job consolidation which reduced the number of job classifications down to just 17 classifications from 42 job classifications that existed before Wabtec took over.
“The company’s job consolidation would have put our members in dangerous working conditions in addition to devaluing our members’ jobs,” said Local 506 Vice President/Recording Secretary Tom Bobrowicz. “I think we did okay with the 31 job classifications that we ended up with. From where we started, it was an uphill battle. Unfortunately, the company chose to battle us on that issue, but we did what we could do.”
Company Learns Its Lesson on Grievances
During the 90-day agreement, the two locals had to accept Wabtec’s much weaker grievance and arbitration procedure, which the company insisted would also be in the new agreement. Over those 90 days, Local 506’s stewards filed more than 70 grievances. However, because it was a much weaker grievance procedure, the company failed to meet and answer most grievances in a timely manner.
“We were able to keep track of the grievances better than what the company did,” said Local 506 Chief Plant Steward Leo Grzegorzewski. “We were able to show during the negotiations that the company was in violation of their own grievance procedure over 60 percent of the time in not having meetings or providing answers to grievances in a timely manner. We were able to prove that and they had no real argument when we presented the evidence.”
“We ended up with a grievance procedure that I believe is better than what we had under GE,” said Grzegorzewski. “We now have tighter timelines at each step of the grievance procedure for when the company has to meet and provide answers to the grievances.”
Wabtec also insisted that the two locals give up their right to strike over grievances. “We knew that our right to strike was going to be another line in the sand for the company,” said Grzegorzewski. The union agreed to a modified right to strike provision in which the union can only strike over three issues: transfer of work that results in permanent layoffs, subcontracting that results in permanent layoffs, and if the company fails to timely respond to grievances at step two and step three of the grievance procedure. “Sure, we’re limited to those three issues, but in the grand scheme of things, we take strikes very seriously,” added Grzegorzewski. “Those three issues are what we would go out on strike over anyways. In the end, I think we came out very favorable on maintaining our right to strike.”
The company had also been demanding an extensive management-rights clause that was three pages long and would have given the company unlimited rights to subcontract work, to establish and enforce arbitrary “minimum standards” for production and to use those standards to transfer or discharge UE members. Locals 506 and 618 beat this concession back as well, settling on a standard one-paragraph management-rights clause based on Local 610’s contract with Wabtec.
UE members working in the Erie facility received the 20-cent cost-of-living adjustment retroactive to April 22 which they would have received under the GE contract, a $2400 lump sum payment in June of this year and a $1500 lump sum payment in each of the remaining years of the contract. Although Wabtec had insisted up to the last moment that only workers employed at the time of the contract signing would receive the lump sum payments, Locals 506 and 618 fought for and won that all workers will receive the lump sum payments.
The company will contribute three percent to a 401(k) retirement plan, and match 50 percent of worker contributions up to an additional three percent. Workers will also receive a one-time lump-sum payment towards the 401(k) equal to 10 percent of their 2019 wages.
Health insurance premiums will be frozen for two years, then capped at a four percent increase in the third and fourth years of the contract. Workers on the ten-year progression will pay 20 percent less for their health care.
One Facility, One Contract
The two locals were also able to defeat Wabtec’s demand that the two locals have separate agreements. “It was a long fight to get 618 and 506 under one contract,” said Local 618 President Karleen Torrance. “With both 618 and 506 working at the same facility, we didn’t need different terms, just because we have a different local number.”
“We are UE and have been under the same contract for 80 years,” added Local 618 Business Agent Janet Gray. “But with a much smaller membership than 506, Wabtec would have crushed us with the swipe of a pen with no question or concern. We needed the bargaining power of the mighty 506 to accomplish what we did.”
At the end of the negotiations, Wabtec also agreed to a settlement agreement in which the company agreed to drop its appeal of the UE members’ unemployment benefits.
“We were largely able to preserve 82 years of contract gains from our old employer,” said Slawson. “We were able to beat back 90 percent of the concessions that Wabtec was demanding in a first contract. I think this sends a very positive message to the labor movement. You have the ability to do this and there are others here to support you.”
The Local 506 and 618 negotiating committee consisted of Local 506 President Scott Slawson, Local 506 Business Agent Mike Ferrito, Local 506 Chief Plant Steward Leo Grzegorzewski, Local 506 Vice President/Recording Secretary Tom Bobrowicz, Local 618 President Karleen Torrence and Local 618 Business Agent Janet Gray. They were assisted by International Representative John Thompson and UE Director of Organization Gene Elk.