“Westinghouse Air Brake Technologies, you damn well will do better for the community of Erie, Pennsylvania!”
As he delivered the final words of his remarks, UE Local 506 Financial Secretary Bryan Pietrzak turned his head up towards the shiny, expensive glass and steel of Wabtec’s corporate headquarters. A few bosses peered down at the more than 250 people rallying to demand that the company settle a fair contract with UE Locals 506 and 618.
For about two hours on Thursday, July 6, a busload of strikers from Wabtec’s Erie locomotive plant, joined by hundreds of supporters, chanted, sang and rallied outside the building. Fourteen hundred UE members from the two locals have been on strike since Thursday, June 22, when they voted down Wabtec’s last, best and final offer by a wide margin.
“I want to thank you all so much for waging the fight,” Congresswoman Summer Lee (D-PA) told the crowd. “We know that companies like Wabtec are never going to move unless we the people move them. We are sending a message to Wabtec and every other company and corporation in western Pennsylvania that Pittsburgh is a union town. We're going to let them know how strong our movement really is — this is how we're going to win the green jobs of the future.”
“This is 1400 families affected by boardroom greed,” said Pietrzak, who spoke for the union at the rally. “We are fighting an onslaught of union-busting tactics from the notorious Jones Day law firm, we are fighting for a family-sustaining wage for new hires, we are fighting to maintain our healthcare, vision, and dental insurances, and lastly we are fighting for company accountability by restoring our right to strike over grievances.”
Pietrzak also noted that “It is a shame that, because of this company’s greed, we are having to fight them, instead of working with them to build the green locomotives that are essential to our country’s climate future. In negotiations, we proposed to do that, because green locomotive production would bring thousands of good, quality jobs into Erie PA and the Western PA area. This company said NO.”
Retired UE Director of Organization Gene Elk, who spoke on behalf of the UE national officers, emphasized that “The UE National Union fully supports the members who are putting on this terrific struggle in Erie.” He noted that “Wabtec is a difficult employer, and has now forced a second work stoppage in just four short years since they took over the Erie facility. Instead of working with Locals 506 and 618, their short-sighted management ... has plowed millions of dollars into stock buybacks, corporate acquisitions, and executive bonuses.”
UE Eastern Region President George Waksmunski blasted Wabtec for threatening to subcontract hundreds of jobs if members didn’t accept the company’s last, best and final offer, and for sending individual letters to members encouraging them to cross the picket line and drop their union membership. He told the strikers, “You’re the tip of the spear. Your cause is just. Your fight is our fight. As members of the working class, we’re all UE 506 and we’re all UE 618.”
UE Local 610 President Antwon Gibson, whose local represents the workers at Wabtec’s facilities in Wilmerding and Greensburg, PA, decried the fact that “Wabtec, a Fortune 500 company, a billion-dollar company … can’t even provide heat during the wintertime in the buildings in Erie,” forcing Local 506 members to work in the cold. “Shame!” he told the company, but looking out at the crowd, declared “this is what solidarity looks like.”
“We are all the united working class,” said Alison Oniboni of UE Local 613, explaining why she and four of her fellow speech pathologists and teachers from the Pennsylvania School for Blind Children, attended the rally to support locomotive workers in Erie. “A struggle and fight for one is a struggle and fight for us all, whether it be ensuring safe and healthy working conditions, making sure we’re all paid a livable wage, or pushing for reform to make our world and society better, healthier, equitable and safe.”
“We're going to fight today, we're going to fight tomorrow, we're going to fight as long as we have to get a quality contract.”
Rev. Richard Freeman
Rev. Richard Freeman, president of the Pennsylvania Interfaith Impact Network, told the story of the Memphis sanitation workers strike of 1968, when a thousand Black men wore signs declaring “I am a man” on the picket line. To “echo the gallantry” of those strikers, Freeman told the crowd that ‘Each of you should have a placard on your chest that simply says “I am human.”’
‘Tell Wabtec, “I am human!”’ he encouraged the crowd, who roared back “I am human!”
“Somewhere, Wabtec has got the idea that they can treat you like you don't matter. Somewhere. Wabtec got the idea that they can treat you like you are chattel. Somewhere, Wabtec got the idea that they can treat you like you are a sharecropper. But I'm here to tell you today that I am human and I stand with the brothers and sisters of UE Local 506 and 618. We're going to fight today, we're going to fight tomorrow, we're going to fight as long as we have to, to get a quality contract.”
Pennsylvania AFL-CIO President Angela Ferrito, whose father and brother (along with many other relatives) both worked at the Erie plant when it was operated by GE Transportation, declared that the 700,000 members of the Pennsylvania AFL-CIO stood in solidarity with Wabtec workers.
“Instead of focusing on building and investing in the workforce that is making them multi-billion-dollar profits, they are more focused on trying to break the workers and trying to bust the union,” Ferrito said. “Well, I’ve got news for Wabtec: that hasn’t worked and that’s never going to work.”
“We need to follow the lead of the workers who have a vision for a green future, with green jobs that pay well, good union jobs,” said Patty Demarco of Reimagine Appalachia and the Izaak Walton League. “Wabtec cannot get away with treating our workers like units of production, working them to the bone, paying them as little as possible, and wringing all the profits out of their pay and benefits. It’s not fair, and we won’t stand for it.”
Two striking workers from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette also addressed the rally, noting the similarities between their struggles and the struggle at Wabtec. Post-Gazette workers have been on strike since October. Retired Steelworker Mike Stout, who has sung at numerous UE rallies, picket lines and conventions, provided music, as did the Pittsburgh Labor Choir.
Pittsburgh Mayor Ed Gainey was unable to attend the rally but issued a statement of support: “I support the workers of UE Locals 506 and 618 in their fight for the green jobs of the future. I encourage Wabtec, as a company headquartered in our city, to prioritize investing in good, family-supporting green jobs. This city has always been a union town, it is something we believe in. We can never forget our history. Let's support the UE and continue to do what's necessary to support the UE in their fight for good, green, clean jobs.”
Other political leaders, unions and organizations that joined the Pittsburgh rally included State Representative Pat Harkins, who drove down from Erie, Allegheny County Councillor Anita Prizio, UE Locals 610, 613, 625, 667, 690 and 696, Northwest PA Area Labor Federation, USW Local 3657, SMART, National Association of Letter Carriers, American Federation of Musicians Local 60-471, Teamsters, AFSMCE Local 2459, IUPAT (Painters) Local 57, Operating Engineers Local 66, American Postal Workers Union, IBEW Local 201, United Steelworkers, United Autoworkers, Bakers Local 19, Starbucks Workers United, Pitt Grad Workers Organizing Committee, K-SWOC, ATU Local 85, SEIU Healthcare PA, Pittsburgh News Guild, CWA, BCTGM, the Pennsylvania Interfaith Impact Network, Mon Valley Unemployed Committee, Black Worker Center, Pittsburgh Labor Choir, Breathe Project, Clean Air Council, Green Party, PA United, Beaver County Marcellus Awareness Community, Upstream, DSA, Socialist Alternative, Pittsburgh United, Pennfuture, Sunrise, OnePA, Battle of Homestead, Rail Pollution Protection Pittsburgh, and the Izaak Walton League.