Historic locomotive manufacturing workers union on strike

On June 22, 1,400 workers at Wabtec, unionized with United Electrical Radio and Machine Workers Locals 506 and 618 in Erie, Pennsylvania, voted to reject their company’s final contract offer and authorize a strike. Within 15 minutes, the 4 million square foot locomotive plant where they work was completely empty. Picket lines were set up shortly thereafter. Workers voted to authorize a strike after four weeks of negotiations with Wabtec in which the corporation failed to concede to some of the union’s most important demands, including the right to strike over grievances, wage increases, an end to a two-tier pay system, and more.

UE 506 workers at the Wabtec facility manufacture locomotives, the powered train cars that pull the rest of the train. The Erie Wabtec facility is an important part of the company’s global operations and the locomotives these workers manufacture are used for transportation all over the world. UE 506 workers are highly-skilled welders, electricians, mechanics, maintenance workers and more. Many of the long-term employees were hired at the facility when the hiring requirement was seven to ten years of manufacturing experience. UE 618 workers are the administrative workers at the Wabtec facility helping it to run efficiently. 

Members of Locals 506 and 618 have been getting strike-ready for about one year, anticipating that Wabtec would not meet their needs at the bargaining table after four years of poor treatment under their previous contract. The Executive Boards of Locals 506 and 618 made a recommendation to the members to reject the final offer from Wabtec and the overwhelming majority of workers did so by ballot on June 22.

In the past few weeks, Wabtec has employed union-busting tactics, including hiring scabs to work in the factory with union workers, sending mailers to each union member’s home explaining how to end their union membership, and threatening to subcontract 275 jobs on the last day of negotiations in attempts to weaken the union before the strike was called. Since the strike was called, buses of scabs have crossed the picket lines after being stalled for hours by union members. 

Photo: UE 506 workers on picket duty June 23, 2023. Credit: Liberation photo

Workers demand respect, better working conditions, green jobs

Local 506 workers on the picket lines had specific demands for their next contract, including the ability to strike for grievances, better pay, an end to the two-tier pay system, and bringing green locomotive jobs to the plant. Since losing their right to strike over grievances in their previous contract, the number of grievances has grown drastically with Wabtec forcing many grievances to arbitration, which is costly for the union. Plus, in one instance, after the union won a grievance fight in arbitration, Wabtec took them to federal court to challenge it, demonstrating their unwillingness to follow the grievance clause in the contract. Workers believe that they need the right to strike over grievances to get respect from Wabtec and ​​to address the company’s contract violations in a timely fashion. 

Long-term workers at the plant have not had a meaningful raise in ten years, effectively taking a pay cut considering inflation and increasing costs of living. New workers are also hired at a lower wage for their first ten years in a two-tiered progression system, which long-term workers think is unfair given they are doing the same work. In addition, they see this as a tactic to divide workers, and for the company to increase turnover as well as fire workers before they reach that ten year mark. Finally, the union is asking that Wabtec work with them on supporting higher Environmental Protection Agency standards for locomotives and bringing green locomotive jobs to Erie because such a strategy would address climate change and other environmental issues while helping their communities. Research funded by the union estimates that shifting to green locomotive production would bring thousands of jobs to the city and county.

Photo: UE 506 and 618 picket sign. Credit: Liberation photo

Historic union locals

The strike at 506 and 618 is nationally significant because these historic locals have survived vicious attacks during McCarthyism and the decimation of labor unions in the United States. They have also survived the heyday of neoliberalism and the loss of domestic jobs, while all throughout representing success in building working-class unity and power. At its peak, the locomotive manufacturing facility had around 30,000 employees in a town of about 138,000 residents. At that time, when domestic industry was still in full swing, Erie had many manufacturing facilities where people from all over Erie County would work. Even after the catastrophic loss of jobs due to outsourcing of manufacturing from the United States to other countries where corporations can more easily exploit workers for higher profits, the locomotive plant in Erie plays an important economic role. One in 11 people in the county are affected by the locals’ negotiations with Wabtec because one of their family members works there and Wabtec is the second largest employer in the county.

Photo: Historical marker outside of UE 506 and 618 union hall. Credit: Liberation photo

During the Red Scare, UE 506 faced attacks against its union leadership in a broader strategy of the U.S. government and its corporate allies to weaken working-class power by targeting unions. Their union president, John Nelson, was accused of communist activity, interrogated and harassed, and was the first union leader fired by General Electric, which then owned the plant. After being fired, he continued to work at the union hall until his death. He died prematurely six years later at the age of 42 and many workers at 506 believe this was due to the stress of having his life destroyed by McCarthyism. Now, members of UE 506’s executive board are paid to do full-time organizing to protect themselves from company retaliation and pressure.

UE 506 has a long record of militant organizing, unity among its members, and widespread community support. Local 506 has only gone on strike two other times in its history: once in 1969 for 109 days when General Electric owned the plant, and once in 2019 for nine days in the frigid February cold right after Wabtec took over the plant.

Photo: UE 506 members marching on April 16, 2013. Credit: Mark Haller.

The importance of unity and solidarity

Many workers on the picket lines said that they could mobilize people to clear the plant right after the strike votes were counted because there is a strong sense of unity amongst members that has been fortified over decades. The local is full of members who have worked at the plant for 20 to 40 years. Members believe that this strike will further unite the members of 506, especially the newer hires who are just learning about this historic union. For example, one newly-hired worker voted against striking but still showed up for picket duty with the other workers in his building because he respected the majority decision to reject the company’s final offer and go on strike. Another example of unity at UE 506 is when workers went out to the picket lines in freezing weather after they voted to strike in February 2019. Workers were confident their fellow union members were not going to work as scabs during the strike or revoke their union membership like the company hoped they would by mailing each of them instructions on how to resign days before the strike.

Local 506 has developed strong connections with working people in their community and beyond. All day at the picket lines car drivers honked and waved in support of the striking workers. Union leadership said once they go on strike, their phones are ringing off the hook with offers of community support such as food and donations to the strike fund. Local 506 members credit the strong support of their community to the time they have put into supporting other working people such as donation drives for charities, community events, showing up to other unions’ picket lines and more. Local 506 is so successful at organizing that they help train other UE locals across the country, including the MIT Graduate Student Union. On the back wall of the 506 and 618 union hall is a powerful mural by Juana Alicia through the Cruzando Fronteras/Crossing Borders mural project depicting women from across the world fighting for labor rights, gender equity and civil rights titled, “A Woman’s Place: A Warrior in the Struggle for International Solidarity/El lugar de una mujer: una guerrillera en la lucha para la solidaridad internacional.”

Photo: One section of the mural in the UE 506 and 618 union hall titled “A Woman’s Place: A Warrior in the Struggle for International Solidarity/El lugar de una mujer: una guerrillera en la lucha para la solidaridad internacional”. Credit: Mark Haller.

The fight ahead

Union leadership is meeting with Wabtec and a federal mediator on July 6. Wabtec has clearly shown that it will use dirty tactics to undermine UE 506 and 618 at every chance it gets during the strike and future negotiations, but these union locals are united and have been forged through a history of struggle. Local 506 and 618 members demonstrate the importance of workers joining together to fight for respect and better working conditions, to build community and solidarity, and ultimately, to build working-class power.

Thank you to all the workers who I spoke to on the picket lines. Please donate to the strike fund for UE 506 and 618 here.

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