Wabtec Workers Walk Out for Grievance Strikes and Green Locomotives
On the evening of June 22, members of the United Electrical workers (UE) crowded into Iroquois High School to vote on whether they would accept what their boss was offering them. They are employed by Wabtec (Westinghouse Air Brake Technologies Corporation), at a four-million-square-foot locomotive manufacturing plant in Lawrence Park, on the east side of Erie, Pennsylvania.
Around 6:00 p.m., the verdict was in: Members of the two UE locals at the plant overwhelmingly voted to reject the offer, and supplies were immediately taken from the union hall to set up picket lines at the plant’s gates. UE Local 506 represents the manufacturing workers, while the smaller UE Local 618 represents clerical workers at the plant.
The significance of the fight inside the sprawling Wabtec plant couldn’t be clearer: 1,400 manufacturing workers are striking a Fortune 500 company for the right to some measure of control over the shop floor. They want their expertise, including on the matter of green locomotives, respected. Wabtec is refusing to accede to those demands.
UE has represented workers in the plant since 1938. Lawrence Park was built by General Electric (GE), which ran the plant for more than a century before the company spun off its $4-billion-a-year transportation arm in 2019, transferring ownership to Wabtec.
They struck for nine days to win that first Wabtec contract in 2019, defeating some of the company’s most egregious proposals but giving up certain provisions they had enjoyed under GE. They hope to win those back now.
GRIEVANCE STRIKES WORKED
The workers want the right to strike over grievances, a right they held for eighty years when the plant was run by GE but gave up in their first contract with Wabtec. Without that right, they say that the company feels empowered to systematically violate the contract, and workers have little recourse.
A May report from the Illinois School of Labor and Employment Relations found that, under Wabtec, grievances are less likely to reach closure than they were under GE, more likely to drag on for months or even years, and more than twice as likely to be rejected.
Chief steward Leo Grzegorzewski says that 95 percent of grievances that reach the third and final step are rejected by Wabtec, forcing the union to go to arbitration, a route that costs UE around $9,000 each time when you add up paying for an arbitrator, a stenographer, and a meeting location. Since 2019, around sixty-eight grievances have reached arbitration. According to UE, the number of grievances reaching the final stage of the grievance procedure has increased tenfold since Wabtec took over the plant.
In other words, without the right to strike over grievances, the workers are governed by a managerial dictatorship, with the employer free to ignore terms of the contract it may find onerous and workers waiting years to see any resolution for these violations.
Months of bargaining failed to produce a tentative agreement, and the company’s actions only increased the workers’ frustration. Hours before the contract expired on June 10, Wabtec informed Local 506 president Scott Slawson that it was considering permanently subcontracting out 275 union jobs, which members read as a threat.
That interpretation was only confirmed when the company then told Slawson on June 20 that it would rescind that move should the workers accept the offer.
As Slawson said, “We deal with an employer that negotiates with threats, and that has to be taken into consideration. It’s difficult to negotiate with somebody when they put a gun to your head rather than looking you in the eye.”
Another noneconomic proposal concerns green locomotives : the workers want to build them, and they want Wabtec to commit to working with them to push for higher governmental standards that would incentivize the industry to move toward less-polluting rail engines.
UE also represents workers who are employed in rail yards: they breathe the rail industry’s pollution daily, and they want to change that. The union is calling for upgrading locomotive stock to modern “Tier 4” standards for long-haul routes and to zero-emissions technologies in rail yards.
A recent report from the University of Massachusetts Amherst finds that building such locomotives would create between 2,600 and 4,300 jobs in the Lawrence Park plant, as well as three to five thousand additional jobs in Erie County.
According to Slawson, Wabtec has “flat out rejected” collaboration on the issue.
“Building green locomotives is essential to the future of our country, and will benefit the local economy here in Erie,” said Slawson in a statement announcing the strike. “Unfortunately, Wabtec’s unwillingness to work with us to resolve problems, either through the grievance process or through contract negotiations, is a major impediment to that bright future.”
Alex Press is a staff writer at Jacobin, where a longer version of this article appeared.
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