In mid-March, as the number of COVID-19 cases began to increase across the country, UE Local 506, whose members work at Wabtec’s huge locomotive manufacturing facility in Erie, PA, began pressing the company to take action to ensure the health and safety of its members, their families and the Erie community.
The company responded by implementing a number of health and safety measures recommended by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the PA Department of Health. The company also temporarily suspended its time and attendance policy, but refused to shut down production.
After PA Governor Tom Wolf issued an executive order, calling for the closure of all “non-life-sustaining” businesses to prevent the spread of the deadly virus, the local stepped up its fight, demanding that the company comply with the governor’s order and scale back production at the Erie facility.
UE Locals 506 and 618 wrote a letter to Joe Cavalier, Erie Site Manager, requesting that the company “shut down the Erie facility and layoff all employees and keep it closed until such time as it is safe to reopen.” The locals also requested that the company “bargain over the effects of the shutdown and establish a plan to ensure the health and safety of their members when its safe to reopen the plant.”
The locals were joined in this call by local elected officials who feared that an outbreak at the facility could have severe consequences for the surrounding communities.
“The decision by Wabtec to remain open without properly protecting its workforce during this pandemic shows a lack of judgment and general disregard for its employees and our greater Erie community, as we all work together to limit the spread of COVID-19,” said PA State Representative Ryan Bizzarro, who called on the company to adhere to CDC guidelines and do their part to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. “This virus outbreak is not a time for corporate America to put profits above people. These are our neighbors and families, and we must consider the dramatic spread that could unnecessarily be happening at this facility.”
Local 506 President Scott Slawson pointed out that the Erie Transportation facility, which encompasses multiple buildings, covering more than 4.5 million square feet, and more than 2,000 employees, is a “city within a city.” An outbreak of the virus could quickly spread throughout the surrounding communities, overwhelming area hospitals.
Rather than immediately shutting down the Erie facility, Wabtec filed an appeal for a waiver to the governor’s order, claiming that their production was critical for the nation’s infrastructure. Wabtec eventually scaled back its production to comply with the governor’s order while it waited to hear back from the governor’s office. The company received a waiver from the governor’s office several days later and began ramping production back up.
While Local 506 reached out to Governor Wolf, asking that he limit the scope of Wabtec’s waiver to remain open, the local and Local 618 began preparing for effects bargaining with the company over the continued operation of the facility and its effects on their members. Local 506 also encouraged its members to reach out to the governor and local elected officials to press them to limit the scope of the waiver.
Slawson told the Erie Times News that the union wasn’t opposed to building critical parts for the nation’s railroads, but was opposed to the company ramping back up full production at the facility.
“We are not calling for a plantwide shutdown unless it’s absolutely needed,” Slawson said. “It’s one thing to keep American stock going, but I’m not sure how we are helping by building foreign locomotives.”
Erie County Executive Kathy Dahlkemper also reached out to Governor Wolf, asking him to reconsider the full waiver he granted Wabtec. She also pressed Wabtec to allow the Erie County Health Department to inspect the facility. The company declined her request at first, but eventually allowed an inspection of the facility.
At the same time the company was ramping back up production, Local 506 ramped up its pressure on the company, including daily calls with safety coordinators and plant managers to make sure the company was following CDC guidelines and was providing the necessary PPE and supplies to ensure the health and safety of its members.
After a week of effects bargaining, the two locals reached an agreement with the company at the beginning of April that provided additional protections for their members, including providing pay and benefits for any employee who has to self-quarantine due to contracting the virus or being exposed to someone who has the virus. The agreement also has protections for immunocompromised employees.
The agreement requires the company to promptly notify the union if an employee tests positive for the virus and outlines the steps the company will follow in shutting down and sanitizing the infected employee’s work area, consistent with CDC guidelines.
“I’m thankful that we have a union that is able to defend the safety and health of our members,” said Local 506 Business Agent Mike Ferritto. “While we weren’t able to get everything that we wanted in the agreement, we were able to put in place a number of safeguards to protect our members and minimize their risks of contracting the COVID-19 virus at work.”
Even though the locals reached an agreement with the company, Ferritto added that Local 506’s position remains unchanged: “Wabtec’s continued production of locomotives and parts that are not essential and necessary to keep our nation’s railroads moving is beyond the spirit of Governor Wolf’s waiver and the Homeland Security directive on life-sustaining jobs critical to our nation’s infrastructure.”