By Kaitlyn Kozalla, features editor
On Sunday, March 3, I picketed with my family to show support for the plight of United Electric members after a nine day lockout. I was overwhelmed by the community’s encouragement and positivity. Trucks ushered wood for burn barrels so families could stay warm, restaurants supplied food, while the refrigerators and freezers in the united electrical radio and machine workers union hall overflowed. Three days later, United Electric 506 and 618 reached a consensus to end the lockout in Erie’s manufacturing facility.
The union passed a vote on Feb. 26 to initiate a lockout on the facility formerly owned by General Electric (GE) Transportation, which is now owned by Wabtec Corporation. This lockout was passed the day after Wabtec’s purchase of the plant was made official.
As the daughter of a 13-year GE employee, I witnessed first hand the impact of Wabtec’s corporate greed. The day of the purchase, the company released an official statement that included the changes being implemented. Some of these changes included a wage cut of almost forty percent, mandatory overtime and to relegate 20 percent of workers to part-time positions with no benefits.
The introduction of Wabtec’s two-tier wage system was the breaking point for many employees. Former GE employees would retain their wages, while new employees would have their wages slashed. What Wabtec failed to clarify is what would happen to employees who are laid off and later returned – they too would receive a wage cut.
After walking the picket line for about an hour, I learned of Wabtec’s regulations on strikers. According to the official statement, only ten members (at least five feet apart) could walk the picket. While all this was occurring, Wabtec employees acted as monitors from their warm vehicles.
Union members shouted: “Who are we? UE!” and “What do we want? A fair contract! When do we want it? Now!” Passing motorists honked in shows of support, some possibly being former GE employees
Harborcreek Township resident Chris Merit, a 30-year GE employee, said: “You can’t just bring in people off the street to do what we do.” Wabtec claims to offer competitive wages, but fails to take into account the common adage “skilled labor isn’t cheap and cheap labor isn’t skilled.”
I continued to follow the situation through local media, but saw no change. Another blow was dealt when I learned my family had lost our insurance. Through the bad; however, the union supported workers as much as they could by helping families pay their bills if they couldn’t afford to do so.
This issue quickly gained national support. Senator Bernie Sanders wrote a letter to Wabtec asking the company to keep the existing contract until a compromise could be reached. Sanders continued by saying he will provide his “full support and solidarity” until a contract is set.
UE President, Scott Slawson, spoke for Local 506 and 618 at a Bernie Sanders rally in Brooklyn. He urged Wabtec to respect hardworking families and find a fair deal for both sides. News outlets including CNN covered the story, which promoted worldwide support for the UE members. The UE Facebook page UE Members 506 was filled with messages of support from working families from California to Connecticut and as far away as Italy, Japan, Mexico and Canada.
Wabtec and UE reached an agreement containing a 90-day contract that allows more negotiations towards a long-term deal. It is unknown whether an agreement will be reached by the end of the term, but both parties claim they are optimistic. At this time, the plant will not close and wages will be maintained at their present levels.
Never have I thought that my family would ever go through this. It was, and still is uncertain of what will happen next, and if i’m honest, it’s nerve-racking. I know in the end everything will turn out, we will persevere no matter the case.
Journalism Adviser, Saegertown Jr. Sr. High School