On June 22, after nearly two months of negotiations, the 1,400 members of UE Locals 506 and 618 voted down Wabtec’s last, best and final offer. Following the vote, second-shift workers marched out of the plant and UE members set up picket lines around the massive facility.
It was the second strike since Wabtec took over the facility from General Electric in 2019. Following a nine-day strike in 2019, the UE locals negotiated a first contract with the new company which preserved most of the conditions they had won over nearly eight decades of bargaining with GE. However, they reluctantly agreed to modifications in the grievance procedure and to lower wage rates for new hires, who would progress to the full “legacy” wage rates over ten years.
In their second contract, members sought to address both the inequities of the “progression” for new hires and the lack of accountability caused by Wabtec’s abuse of the grievance process over the past four years. The company simply refused to address issues in the plant, pushing everything to arbitration — a study by the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign found that grievances per worker had almost doubled since Wabtec took over, and the company was less likely to settle disputes than GE. Members were also keen to make up for their loss of purchasing power as inflation soared in the past two years.
As soon as the UE members walked out, support poured in from the community and around the country. Major unions and labor leaders, including the UAW, Teamsters, and Association of Flight Attendants President Sara Nelson, who spoke to UE’s 2021 convention, tweeted support for the strike. Unifor, Canada’s largest private-sector union, sent a solidarity photo, and UE locals around the country sent letters of support. Both of Pennsylvania’s U.S. Senators, Bob Casey and John Fetterman, issued statements backing the UE members. Lieutenant Governor Austin Davis visited the picket line in the first week of the strike and sent a letter to Wabtec CEO Rafael Santana, indicating that both he and Governor Josh Shapiro supported the workers’ demands for a fair contract.
On the tenth day of the strike, new UAW President Shawn Fain issued a statement supporting the strikers, and a delegation from UAW Local 1112 at the Ultium battery plant in Lordstown, Ohio visited the picket lines. “As we transition to green manufacturing, we have a major opportunity to reinvest in good jobs in this country,” said Fain. “But corporate America isn’t going to let that happen without a fight. Just like they’ve done for generations, UE is leading the way, on and off the job, on the picket line, and in our communities. To our UE family: we’ve got your back.” Over the course of the strike, many other unions visited the picket lines to show support, including Erie-area locals of IBEW, the Machinists, and the Ironworkers. New UE graduate worker locals from Chicago and Baltimore, and other UE locals from Western Pennsylvania and Virginia, walked the picket lines, and members of the UE Leadership and Staff Development Program helped out during their in-person meeting in Erie. UE Local 150 members leafletted a Wabtec plant in North Carolina.
UE’s international allies also demonstrated their support, with unions from Canada, Mexico, Brazil, Spain, Italy, Korea and even Ukraine, several of which also represent Wabtec workers, sending solidarity photos, videos and statements. Christine Olivier of IndustriALL, the global union federation with which UE is affiliated, said, “The striking members have IndustriALL’s full support and we call on Wabtec to engage in genuine negotiations with the locals.”
Closer to home, both the Erie City Council and County Council unanimously passed resolutions supporting the strikers, and local politicians from across the political spectrum visited the picket line or met with the union, including State Representatives Pat Harkins (D) and Jake Banta (R) and State Senator Dan Laughlin (R). The Benedictine Sisters issued a statement and organized a silent peace walk supporting the strike.
Local 506’s leadership of the UE Green Locomotive Project brought additional support and national attention to the strike. The Green Locomotive Project aims to create additional jobs at the plant, clean up pollution in rail yards, and address climate change by pressuring the railroads to upgrade their fleets to modern, fuel-efficient “green” locomotives. Journalist Sarah Lazare made the connection in an article titled “In a Summer of Record Heat, These Striking Workers Are Making Climate Demands.” Green Locomotive Project volunteers in California leafletted the Barstow rail yard in solidarity with the strike, and many environmental and climate organizations in Western Pennsylvania turned out members for solidarity rallies.
Strikers and supporters rally at Wabtec corporate headquarters in Pittsburgh on July 6.
On July 6, hundreds of supporters gathered at Wabtec’s corporate headquarters in Pittsburgh for a solidarity rally, where long-time UE ally Congresswoman Summer Lee told strikers, “I want to thank you all so much for waging the fight. We know that companies like Wabtec are never going to move unless we the people move them.” Pennsylvania AFL-CIO President Angela Ferrito, whose father and brother both worked at the Erie plant, and Pennsylvania Interfaith Impact Network President Richard Freeman also addressed the rally, and Pittsburgh Mayor Ed Gainey issued a statement of support.
As the strike entered its second month, Wabtec was forced to admit to investors on its second-quarter earnings call that the strike “does have a cost.” On Saturday, July 29, a “convoy” of supporters from Pittsburgh traveled to Erie for a solidarity rally, and in mid-August, Senator Fetterman came to a rally at the picket line, met with the officers of both locals, and sent a message to his supporters urging them to donate to the strike fund. Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, a longstanding UE ally, distributed a video about the strike on his social media channels, featuring UE members speaking out about conditions in the plant.
UE strikers march around the plant to attend rally with Senator Fetterman on August 21. Photos: Al Hart.
Finally, in mid-August the company began negotiating in earnest with the union. A tentative agreement was reached at the end of the month and ratified by the members of the two locals on August 31, as the UE NEWS was going to press.
“This contract represents a substantial improvement over what Wabtec had on the table in June,” said Local 506 President Scott Slawson. “We are proud of the resolve of the membership over 70 days on the picket line. As a result of the action taken by our members, we made both economic and non-economic gains.”
Details of the contract settlement will be published in the fall issue of the UE NEWS. More coverage of the strike, the Bernie Sanders video, and video of the July 6 rally, are all available at ueunion.org/wabtec2023.
As part of preparing for the strike, Local 506 revamped the kitchen in their hall, which served as the strike kitchen.