Rank-and-file unionism pushes company back in Wabtec strike
Wabtec is a company that supplies technology products and services to freight rail and passenger transit markets worldwide. On Feb. 25, Wabtec consolidated a merger with GE Transportation. That very day, the company announced it would no longer abide by the contract terms that the United Electrical workers union had previously negotiated with General Electric in Erie, Pa.
Wabtec attempted to unilaterally impose major concessions, including forced overtime, pay cuts of up to 38 percent, a two-tier pay scale, extensive use of temporary workers and arbitrary schedules.
UE Local 506, representing most of the 1,700 workers at the Erie plant, and Local 618, representing a smaller group of workers, did not waste any time trying to plead with the company for fairness. They hit the picket line!
Nine days later the strike is over and the union is claiming a win. The tentative agreement is for 90 days, but UE is confident it can win a long-term contract. Terms of the short-term agreement include no pay cuts, no benefit cuts, no forced overtime and no plant closure or permanent layoffs during the term of the agreement.
Rank-and-file union against Fortune 500 behemoth
As the union points out, Wabtec can well afford to maintain the pay and benefits that GE had been providing. Formed in 1999 by the merger of Westinghouse Air Brake and Motive Power Industries, Wabtec is no small, upstart company.
Even before its latest acquisition, Wabtec had 100 facilities in 50 countries on six continents and was one of the world’s largest railroad equipment companies. With the latest expansion, Wabtec has 27,000 employees worldwide and has become a Fortune 500 firm. CEO Ray Betler was paid $16 million in compensation last year — about equal to the value of the contract concessions Wabtec demanded.
The Erie plant, over 100 years old, is one of the largest locomotive factories in the world, occupying 1,000 acres. UE has represented the workers for 82 years. GE was — and now Wabtec is — the largest single employer in the city of Erie, population 97,000. Imposing pay cuts or layoffs on 1,700 UE families would have had a detrimental impact on the local economy. Less money would be spent and the tax base would drop.
People in the community understood this. They honked in support, stopped by the lines and dropped off food, coffee, hand warmers and firewood. “Community support was overwhelming,” Local 506 President Scott Slawson told Workers World. For years GE tried to use UE’s good wages and benefits to pit the community against the union. “But,” he continued, “we’ve made the community understand the benefits to them of [jobs with good] wages and benefits. The outreach from them was absolutely amazing.”
Support for strikers — from Erie to around the world
Support came in from all over the world. As the UE website reports, “The Erie UE locals have received letters of support from UE Local 610, which represents Wabtec workers in Wilmerding [Pa.]; the IndustriALL Global Labor Union which represents 50 million workers around the world; unions in Canada, Great Britain, France, Italy, Brazil, Mexico and Turkey; and from Railroad Workers United, a cross-craft alliance of union railroad workers in the U.S. and Canada — all of whom have written to Wabtec CEO Ray Betler indicating they are following the Erie negotiations and are prepared to take action.”
Solidarity of the rank and file is what, first and foremost, pushed the company back. The union explains, “In UE, we use the term ‘rank-and-file unionism’ to describe how our union operates: it simply means it’s the members who run our union … in a democratic and collective manner.” (ueunion.org)
In Erie, this culture was evident. “The company understood our resolve. The spirit on the picket line was very high,” according to Slawson. To his knowledge there were no line-crossers. “Nearly the entire membership participated. The first days there was a high level of excitement and after that it was sheer resolve. The company was overwhelmed.”
The company agreed to most of the language in the GE-UE contract, although not 100 percent. The union, previously allowed to strike over any grievance, agreed not to strike for the life of the contract; the company agreed to no lockouts.
What if the company demands more givebacks in the next 90 days? Are the workers prepared to go back out?
“Yeah, I believe they are,” said Slawson. “We’re a tough unit and certain things — two-tier, mandatory overtime — are just not acceptable.”