ERIE, Pa. — “We are fighting for the next generation,” Sam Hill, a striking United Electrical Workers member who’s worked at GE Transportation here for 14 years as a forklift operator, told the Militant March 1. “We don’t want to be known as the generation that sold the younger ones out. Under this contract new hires and our members called back from layoff would take a 50 to 25 percent pay cut, many could only be hired as temps, and they’re imposing mandatory overtime. We have 500 people still laid off! No!!”
The strike came abruptly the day after Wabtec — Westinghouse Air Brake Technologies Corp. — took over the plant here, and the rest of General Electric’s locomotive holdings Feb. 25. The company imposed deep concession cuts on the 1,700 workers at the Erie plant, including a two-tier wage scale that slashes the $35 an hour starting wage for new hires by 38 percent. It also allows the bosses to hire temporary workers to fill 20 percent of the jobs.
While the Wabtec bosses have gone after the workers, the company rewarded CEO Raymond Betler and 19 other executives with bonuses for taking over GE Transportation. Betler gets $16 million.
The two union locals at the plant — UE 506 and UE 618 — walked out and have been picketing 24 hours a day since.
This means that Erie has become a focal point in the defense of the U.S. working class.
Strike wins broad support
The union’s fight has drawn broad support from workers in the area. While these worker-correspondents were on the line, members of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, Erie Education Association, Association of Pennsylvania State College and University Faculties and others joined in the picketing.
The UE called for a solidarity rally March 6 outside Wabtec’s national headquarters in Wilmerding, near Pittsburgh.
Andy Pushchak, a professor at Edinboro University, walked the line March 1, saying he was there to offer his support. He also said he’d come for a second reason, to honor the memory of his late grandfather, who walked the same picket line the last time UE went on strike in 1969.
The plant has been a mainstay of the labor movement here for decades. It was opened by GE in 1911, had its first strike in 1918, and after a series of battles was unionized in 1937 by UE.
This plant used to employ thousands more workers, but GE bosses, facing challenges in its manufacturing empire and the strength of the union, built a new, nonunion locomotive plant in Fort Worth, Texas, and began shifting work there in 2013, laying off workers in Erie. Like the rest of GE’s Transportation works, that plant is now owned by Wabtec. GE Transportation has been the largest producer of diesel-electric locomotives for freight applications in North America, as well as other parts of the world.
“This fight was imposed on us,” said Radu Bogdan, an assembler at GE for 12 years. “We don’t want their two-tier system and 20 percent of the workers being temporary. It’s wrong.” A popular sign in the union hall says, “One union, one tier.”
The workers on the picket line are getting donations of food, water and other supplies. Pickup truck after pickup truck kept coming by bringing wooden pallets for the burn barrels on the line.
When asked if they would need the huge mound of wood pallets there, he said, “You kidding? We’re here 24 hours, all through the night and we’re not going anywhere soon. It’s cold, but we plan to stay warm.”
Socialist Workers Party member Malcolm Jarrett, the party’s candidate for Pittsburgh City Council, came with a caravan of high school and middle school students to show solidarity from Pittsburgh, some two hours away. The students took a day off of their weekend to get a real education at the picket lines. We brought a carload of water, sodas and pizzas, middle schooler Che Castro told the picketers. “This is the kind of support everybody fighting needs.”
Rob Hodgson jumped out of his station wagon with a bunch of food for the strikers’ commissary tent. “My wife and I cooked some up,” he said. Hodgson is a chemistry teacher and member of the Erie Education Association.
The association organized a rally on the line March 2, where dozens of members and their families joined the picket. Groups of workers from the Machinists union, Erie Crawford Central Labor Council, electricians and others came by and joined.
You can get a sense of the widespread support for the workers here, as honking horns and waves from those driving by were constant. And people from local businesses kept coming by with contributions of pizza, donuts, sandwiches, food and coffee, in addition to plenty more pallets.
The union members have organized mass picketing outside the plant. The company sought an injunction, claiming strikers have been intimidating those trying to go in. The union denies this, but agreed to restrict the number of picketers at the gates.
“What’s going on in this fight is not just here. It’s the whole country, the world, things are bad,” Greg August told us on the picket line. “A workers’ rebellion is going to have to happen. Look at the number of shutdown plants all over Erie and everywhere.”
Messages of solidarity can be sent to United Electrical Workers, 3923 Main St., Lawrence Park, Pa. 16511, or by phone at (814) 899-3108.