On the picket line: historic strike in PA & bus drivers unionize in VA

Historic locomotive factory strike in Erie, Pa.

In the largest U.S. manufacturing sector strike since 2016, nearly 2,000 locomotive manufacturing engineers walked off the job Feb 26 at the Wabtec (Westinghouse Air Brake Technologies) Plant in Erie, Pa. The workers, represented by United Electrical Workers (UE) Locals 506 and 618, went out over the company’s refusal to agree to a 30-day contract extension. (tinyurl.com/y6yw5hd7)

UE members have had a contract with GE since 1938 — 81 years! The strike is the first since 1969, though the workers have been angry since 2017 when General Electric transferred work to a nonunion factory in Texas. The strike comes one day after the plant started operating under Wabtec; the plant was previously owned by GE, and the two companies merged in 2018. (Common Dreams, March 2)

Wabtec wants to force new working conditions, including a 38 percent wage cut for new hires and rehired workers, so it can lay off workers and then force them to work in the new permanent low-wage tier. Wabtec’s demands include mandatory overtime, arbitrary schedules, reduced shift differential, no grievance procedure, reductions in paid time off, mandatory shutdowns invoking forced use of paid vacation time, changes in job classifications, the right to use temporary workers for up to 20 percent of the work and cutting 82 jobs.

“This is corporate greed and union busting 101,” said 14-year worker Brad McCurdy. (In These Times, Feb. 27) Wabtec reported 2018 fourth-quarter sales of $1.12 billion, up 4 percent from 2017. Factoring in GE Transportation’s full-year results, it expects 2019 sales to be $9.2 billion.

An analysis of the 466 cuts Wabtec wants shows that proposed wage reductions would result in total wage losses of $17.1 million. Do the math: What Erie workers might lose covers Wabtac CEO Raymond Betlier’s $16 million merger bonus!

The union continues to try to return to the bargaining table, but Wabtec has refused to respond to UE proposals or bargain on all subjects unless the union submits to two-tier. That would undo what organizers have called “generations of families with good rust belt jobs.” (Erie News Now, Feb. 28) Given the ripple effect, Erie’s economy stands to lose $11 million. No wonder the community is enthusiastically supporting the strike.

At a rally March 2, members of teachers unions, Teamsters, the Central Labor Council, Steamfitters and children of strikers lined the Water Street entrance in Lawrence Park. They held flyers that read, “UE is my union, my neighbors, my kid, my aunt, my town, me.” One striking worker noted that the action comes at a time of renewed public support for labor rights: “[T]here is a greater willingness to fight among workers more broadly, thanks to the success of the recent teachers’ strikes.” The community has donated food, hand warmers and time, while local restaurants have contributed hundreds of sandwiches to all three picket lines on each shift.

Strike support is also coming from AFL-CIO state and federal organizations, national union presidents including Flight Attendants-CWA President Sara Nelson and from politicians like Bernie Sanders. The international labor movement — the industriALL global labor federation, representing 50 million workers worldwide; and unions in Canada, Great Britain, France, Italy, Brazil, Mexico and Turkey — is also in solidarity with the strike.

Sign the solidarity petition at tinyurl.com/wabtec1 and join several social media days posted on ueunion.org. Victory to the workers!

DASH drivers start their union engine

After months of owner repression, DASH bus operators in Alexandria, Va., voted 97 to 13 to join Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689. The DASH corporation provides bus service to the Washington, D.C., suburb.

While wholly owned by the city, which elects its board and allocates funds, DASH is a separate entity run by contractor Transit Management of Alexandria, owned by First Transit, to keep wages down. One DASH driver told the Gazette-Packet newspaper that pay is “lower and slower” than at other regional systems. It takes 20 years to reach DASH’s top pay grade of $29/hour, while it takes only 5 years for the $32/hour cap at Fairfax Connector. DASH drivers have an unpopular, employee-match 401(k) plan and do not earn a city pension. One driver noted that his yearly raise barely lets him keep up with rising bills.

DASH general managers have pushed anti-union propaganda since August under the $45,000 direction of union-busting law firm American Labor Group. In January, DASH fired Latonya Robinson, a Black driver, on trumped-up infractions in retaliation for her pro-union activism. ATU organizers say she’s “probably [the] best leader during the organizing drive.” But pressure from the drivers, the regional union movement and political allies forced management to back off. Thanks to the workers’ struggle, they won. (DCLabor.org, Feb. 21)

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