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UE Members Demonstrate the Power of Collective Action at Wabtec 

By October 3, 2023October 5th, 2023No Comments

October 3, 2023

This blog is about the successful recent strike of the United Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers of America (UE) against the locomotive manufacturer, Wabtec corporation, affirms a fundamental and ageless lesson for Pennsylvanians and Americans: the power of collective action. As the Keystone Research Center discussed in this year’s State of Working Pennsylvania 2023, it is the power of collective action–and the bravery of workers in the face of employer intimidation–that will bring union density in our state and country back to 35% or more, fixing our nation’s grotesque inequities and helping to achieve elected officials and legislative bodies responsive to working people and the public good. 

Keystone Research Center (KRC) first learned about the UE bargaining with Wabtec early this year when UE President Carl Rosen reached out for help finding researchers who could estimate the jobs potential of expanding green locomotive production at the Wabtec plant in Erie. KRC connected UE to the most respected modelers in the country who estimate the jobs potential of investments to reduce carbon emissions, economists with the Political Economy Research Institute (PERI) at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. On April 25, 2023, PERI released a report highlighting the potential to create up to 10,000 good jobs in Erie County and up to 15,000 jobs nationally by expanding green locomotive production. KRC partnered with ReImagine Appalachia to organize a digital press conference and webinar and raise the visibility of the PERI report. Here are links to the PERI press release, the report on the KRC website, and the digital press conference.

Two months later, in June 2023, the members of UE Locals 506 and 618 went on strike against Wabtec. This was the second strike in four years, and the members sought to address several issues, including the grievance process and wages for new hires. The strike lasted for over 70 days, during which the members received widespread support from the community and other labor unions. Finally, in mid-August, a tentative agreement was reached and ratified by the members of the two locals on August 31.

Support from the Community and Labor Unions

As soon as the UE members walked out, support poured in from the community and around the country. Major unions and labor leaders, including the UAW, Teamsters, and Association of Flight Attendants President Sara Nelson tweeted support for the strike. Unifor, Canada’s largest private-sector union, sent a solidarity photo, and UE locals around the country sent letters of support. Both of Pennsylvania’s U.S. Senators, Bob Casey and John Fetterman, issued statements backing the UE members. Lieutenant Governor Austin Davis visited the picket line in the first week of the strike and sent a letter to Wabtec CEO Rafael Santana, indicating that both he and Governor Josh Shapiro supported the workers’ demands for a fair contract.

On the tenth day of the strike, new UAW President Shawn Fain issued a statement supporting the strikers, and a delegation from UAW Local 1112 at the Ultium battery plant in Lordstown, Ohio visited the picket lines. “As we transition to green manufacturing, we have a major opportunity to reinvest in good jobs in this country,” said Fain. “But corporate America isn’t going to let that happen without a fight. Just like they’ve done for generations, UE is leading the way, on and off the job, on the picket line, and in our communities. To our UE family: we’ve got your back.” 

Over the course of the strike, many other unions visited the picket lines to show support, including Erie-area locals of IBEW, the Machinists, and the Ironworkers. New UE graduate worker locals from Chicago and Baltimore, and other UE locals from Western Pennsylvania and Virginia, walked the picket lines, and members of the UE Leadership and Staff Development Program helped out during their in-person meeting in Erie. UE Local 150 members leafletted a Wabtec plant in North Carolina.

UE’s international allies also demonstrated their support, with unions from Canada, Mexico, Brazil, Spain, Italy, Korea, and even Ukraine, several of which also represent Wabtec workers, sending solidarity photos, videos, and statements. Christine Olivier of IndustriALL, the global union federation with which UE is affiliated, said, “The striking members have IndustriALL’s full support and we call on Wabtec to engage in genuine negotiations with the locals.”

Closer to home, both the Erie City Council and County Council unanimously passed resolutions supporting the strikers, and local politicians from across the political spectrum visited the picket line or met with the union, including State Representatives Pat Harkins (D) and Jake Banta (R) and State Senator Dan Laughlin (R). The Benedictine Sisters issued a statement and organized a silent peace walk supporting the strike.

Local 506’s leadership of the UE Green Locomotive Project brought additional support and national attention to the strike. The Green Locomotive Project will create additional jobs at the plant, clean up pollution in rail yards, and address climate change by pressuring the railroads to upgrade their fleets to modern, fuel-efficient “green” locomotives. Journalist Sarah Lazare made the connection in an article titled “In a Summer of Record Heat, These Striking Workers Are Making Climate Demands.” Green Locomotive Project volunteers in California leafletted the Barstow rail yard in solidarity with the strike, and many environmental and climate organizations in Western Pennsylvania turned out members for solidarity rallies.

On July 6, hundreds of supporters gathered at Wabtec’s corporate headquarters in Pittsburgh for a solidarity rally, where long-time UE ally Congresswoman Summer Lee told strikers, “We know that companies like Wabtec are never going to move unless we the people move them.” Pennsylvania AFL-CIO President Angela Ferrito and Pennsylvania Interfaith Impact Network President Richard Freeman also addressed the rally, and Pittsburgh Mayor Ed Gainey issued a statement of support.

Resolution and Lasting Impacts

As the strike entered its second month, Wabtec was forced to admit to investors on its second-quarter earnings call that the strike “does have a cost.” On Saturday, July 29, a “convoy” of supporters from Pittsburgh traveled to Erie for a solidarity rally, and in mid-August, Senator Fetterman came to a rally at the picket line, met with the officers of both locals, and sent a message to his supporters urging them to donate to the strike fund. Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders distributed a video about the strike on his social media channels, featuring UE members speaking out about conditions in the plant.

Finally, in mid-August, the company began negotiating in earnest with the union. A tentative agreement was reached at the end of the month and ratified by the members of the two locals on August 31, as the UE NEWS was going to press. This contract represents a substantial improvement over what Wabtec had on the table in June. As a result of the action taken by UE members, workers made both economic and non-economic gains. The strike and resulting agreement demonstrate the power of collective action and the importance of community and political support in securing better working conditions and fair wages for workers.

Looking Forward to a Green Locomotive Future

This agreement is one step on a long-term struggle to simultaneously rebuild America’s middle class and address climate change aggressively enough to save the only planet we’ve got. We all owe UE’s workers in Erie a debt of gratitude in this struggle. We also look forward to continuing to support UE workers in their effort to expand green locomotive production, including by leveraging federal and state support for additional investment in Erie.