Erie, Pennsylvania now the center of test case for the right to strike
UE Local 506 Members are preparing to strike over the "right to strike over grievances" | UE

ERIE, Pa.—Bargaining over a new contract between Wabtec, the owner of the former GE locomotive plant in Erie, Pennsylvania and United Electrical Workers Local 506, which represents the 1,400 workers there, has become a test case for the right to strike.

And that’s important for workers, union and non-union, nationally. A strike is a worker’s weapon of last resort, even if there’s no union. After all, the National Labor Relations Act says workers legally can band together for mutual protection in any way they see fit, union or not, although an early-June ruling by the right-wing Republican-named U.S. Supreme Court majority is on record curbing the right of workers forced to strike by raising the financial stakes of doing so.

To be precise, the law declares workers have “the right to self-organization, to form, join, or assist labor organizations, to bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing, and to engage in other concerted activities for the purpose of collective bargaining or other mutual aid or protection.”

The “other concerted activities” include strikes, even if there’s no union—such as the strike by 1,922 Amazon workers, half of them at its Seattle headquarters, that began even as the UE’s zoom press conference about Wabtec was getting underway.

The Amazon workers, who are not unionized, struck over the monster packaging and retail firm’s demand they return to the office fulltime at least three days a week and over its climate change policy, or lack of it.

“Employees need a say in decisions that affect our lives,” Amazon Employees For Climate Justice and Amazon’s Remote Advocacy said in a petition they presented to bosses on those issues just before they took a hike. Both policies show the firm, founded and majority-owned by one of the world’s richest and most anti-worker capitalists, Jeff Bezos, is “taking us in the wrong direction.”

So is Wabtec, and the past four years under its control, compared to the prior four years under GE, prove it, UE’s Rosen and Local 506 leaders say.

The contract Wabtec and the local signed after the 2019 takeover lets the workers strike over wages, benefits and working conditions once a contract has reached its end. That’s like many if not most other union contracts nationwide.

The difference was that under the prior four years under GE, and the eight decades under GE before that, UE Local 506 had contracts that let it strike over unresolved grievances, too, but only after going through a three-step resolution process.

Local could strike

Both contracts also said the local could strike over transfer of work out of the plant, company subcontracting of union jobs and deliberate company delays in handling grievances.

The result of the old contract under GE, according to a report the local commissioned from the labor studies center at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, was the grievances clause’s implied promise to strike actually improved trust on the job by leading to speedier and more equitable settlements, too.

Not now, said Rosen. Not now, said Local 506 President Scott Slossen. Not now, said the local’s lead shop steward in the Erie locomotive plant, Leo Grzegorzewski.

“They asked us to put a little trust in them and they’ve repeatedly abused it” by slowing down grievances, which in turn have mounted and mounted—even when the firm’s excuses for disciplining workers “have been demonstrably false,” Slossen said. Some grievances have been pending for all four years of the current contract, he added.

“Wabtec has felt free to violate the contract’s terms,” Rosen said. Morale has plunged and workers are cynical and angry.

That’s a common boss tactic to beat workers, said another participant, Association of Flight Attendants-CWA President Sara Nelson, who pledged AFA’s full support for the Wabtec workers’ struggle. “The four ways of union-busting are to divide, delay, distract and demonize,” she said.

“The number of grievances” yearly “have doubled and they’ve not been resolved,” said Rosen. Added Grzegorzewski: “Under GE, we filed 125 grievances a year” in the last four years of its contract. “Now we’ve filed more than 1,200 in the last four years” under the Wabtec pact.

The third step of the grievance process sees Wabtec’s HR manager, who’s already been involved in the first two steps, become judge and jury in the third. The union views that as grossly unfair. As a result, all the grievances—once they get that far–go to arbitration, which can cost $9,000 per case, Grzegorzewski explained.

So the grievance procedure, and restoration of the right to strike if the company doesn’t solve grievances fast, has become the key issue in the talks with Wabtec. The talks wouldn’t be nationally significant, except the company’s locomotive business may be about to accelerate.

That could be a big economic boon for the depressed Erie area, and a big part of the nation’s conversion from fossil-fueled transportation—diesel locomotives—to electric powered replacements.

The three explained that with 1,400 highly trained and high-skilled workers, the Wabtec Erie plant is perfectly positioned to build the electric locomotives which the Biden administration’s clean energy plan demands. And Biden’s plan also demands they be U.S.-made and union-built.

Translation: More and more well-paying jobs, in the Wabtec plant and outside it, added local pastor Carl Freeman. “Wabtec is unjust in its treatment of the workers,” he said. “They deserve to be treated with dignity and respect. You should have the right to strike when you are mistreated.”

“Collective bargaining and striking is a human right,” Nelson declared. “The idea that you must come to work under terms you did not agree to should have gone out with the passage of the 13th Amendment” to the U.S. Constitution. That’s the amendment that freed the slaves.

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Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.