Wabtec workers walk out over right to strike on grievances

By Candace Wagner
July 17, 2023

ERIE, Pa. — The strike by 1,400 United Electrical Workers members against Wabtec Corp. here that began June 22 remains solid and spirited. Workers at the plant build rail locomotives.

The two striking UE locals, production workers in Local 506 and office workers in Local 618, have called a protest outside Wabtec’s national headquarters in Pittsburgh July 6. Other unions in the area are organizing to participate, including the Communications Workers of America and Teamsters union members who have been involved in a bitter, long-term strike against the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Workers told the Militant the most important issue in the walkout is the right to strike over grievances. “The right to strike is the foundation of unions,” explained striker Jason Lloyd. “Before Wabtec bought the company from General Electric, we had the right to strike over unresolved grievances. We used that tool very rarely. We didn’t have to. Having the right was enough to force the company’s hand, keep them in check.”

David Ferguson, a member of the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers union, who had come to find out more about the strike and offer solidarity, told strikers about his past experience as a union coal miner. “When the union safety committee said, ‘It’s not safe,’ the mine was shut down. This right is very important.”

Another issue strikers wanted to discuss was the 10-year wage progression for new hires. The union is demanding newly hired workers reach full wage scale much faster. “I think that the raises they are offering us should all be given to the new guys,” striker Jim Hebbler said. “They need it.”

Bryan Pietrzak, a heavy-equipment operator in the plant and treasurer of Local 506, said health care is also a central issue. The company is demanding to impose a plan where costs and benefits can change at any time, with just one month’s notice, during the four years of the contract. The union says no.

“With the low wages they want to offer, they can’t hire skilled workers,” he told us. “They’re hiring workers with no factory experience and giving little training. Newer workers get hurt. Safety isn’t high on the company’s priority list.”

Pipefitter Frank Kovacs agreed. “I had to learn my job by taking pictures of what the guy on the second shift had done. I taught myself.”

“I believe that the pendulum is swinging toward the unions today,” Kovacs said.

Solidarity from area unions is growing. On June 28 members of Ironworkers Regional Shop Local 851 mobilized to join the pickets. When they went on a successful strike in 2021, the UE workers at Wabtec were a mainstay of support.

United Auto Workers Local 1186 from the Accuride aluminum plant here brought solidarity, as did International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 459, whose members drove a procession of boom trucks past the picket line in support.

Students from Northwestern University in Chicago traveled to Erie to support the strike. Graduate student instructors there are organizing into the UE.

Strikers on the picket line have been following the fight by rail workers and residents in East Palestine, Ohio, for control over safety, the train derailment cleanup there and access to health care. Ferguson explained how rail unions intervened in the recent hearings of the National Transportation Safety Board there to tell the truth about the cause of the disaster — the profit drive of the bosses.

“Without the power of the unions behind this fight, Norfolk Southern won’t do what’s necessary in the long run for those affected, or prevent more dangerous derailments,” Ferguson said. “We need our unions to fight for control over our working conditions, both for us, and for the surrounding communities.”

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