1,400 workers on strike at Wabtec, fight wins broad union solidarity

By Candace Wagner
July 10, 2023
United Electrical Workers members on strike against Wabtec picket plant in Erie, Pennsylvania, June 27. Demands include wage raise, right to strike over grievances, improved health care.
Militant/Candace WagnerUnited Electrical Workers members on strike against Wabtec picket plant in Erie, Pennsylvania, June 27. Demands include wage raise, right to strike over grievances, improved health care.

ERIE, Pa. — Hundreds of strikers picketed at the gates of the Wabtec locomotive manufacturing plant here after 1,400 workers voted down the bosses’ takeback contract demands June 22. The workers are members of United Electrical Workers Local 506, which organizes the production workers, and Local 618, which organizes a handful of office workers.

“We’re doing what we have to do,” Ryan Mudger told Militant  worker-correspondents. “We’ve suffered four years of the company’s ‘interpretations’ of the union contract. They deny every grievance and force us into a long, drawn-out arbitration. We’re fighting to regain the right to strike over grievances to hold the company accountable. This was a big reason for the overwhelming vote against their ‘last, best and final’ offer.

“The biggest issue is health care,” he said. “What they are demanding is a plan where the costs, and the benefits, are subject to change at any time during the four-year contract. Who’s going to vote for that?”

“I’m most concerned about the 10-year progression of wages,” striker Jenna Bemis said, referring to the lower wages new hires get. “Those workers deserve more than that. Some actually rely on government benefits, that’s how little they make.”

“I think it’s an awesome time to fight,” she said. “Local 506 can take anything they throw at us. The Erie community is 100% behind us, except of course the rich people.”

The bosses responded to the strike with two letters to workers June 22. One claimed workers were paid too much, saying they “repeatedly informed the UE that the Erie facility was burdened with high labor costs and restrictive work rules.” The other gave workers instructions on how they could quit the union and cross the picket lines.

“I could retire now,” striker Doug Snyder said. “But when I got the June 22 letter from the company telling us we could cross the picket line and attaching a filled-out form to resign from the union, I decided that I’m in this for the duration. I wouldn’t be able to live with myself otherwise.”

The bosses’ offer on wages would mean workers would continue to lose income to inflation. At the same time, the union said, Wabtec CEO Rafael Santana got $11 million in compensation in 2021.

Matt Fedak, a UE Local 506 executive board member, said the strike is already getting solidarity from other unions, including a visit from their sister UE local at the Wabtec plant in Wilmerding, Pennsylvania. The Teamsters Horsemen Motorcycle Club made a noisy ride around the plant in support.

Members of Ironworkers Union Local 851 — who fought and won a bitter 75-day strike in 2021, with help from the United Electrical Workers — organized to join picketing June 28.

In the bitter winter of 2019, the UE locals carried out a nine-day strike after Wabtec took over the company from General Electric. The new bosses had come down on workers and imposed a new takeback contract.

That strike forced the new management to agree to a 90-day negotiation period today. Utilizing the time, the locals won  solidarity from other unions and the working-class community of Erie. They organized lunchtime marches inside the plant and informational pickets at the gates.

While some demands of the company were defeated in 2019, the bosses also wrenched concessions from the workers. This time strikers have put out a T-shirt saying, “We are coming for everything you said we couldn’t have.”

Show your solidarity! Picket lines are up 24/7. Join them! Get out the word and build support in your union. Send solidarity messages to UE Local 506, 3923 Main St., Lawrence Park, PA 16511.