In Erie, 1,500 UE Members to Walkout over “Right to Strike” over Grievances

UE members won the "right-to-strike" in a 2-month long strike (UE)

ERIE, PA – “Pile on,” yells UE Local 506 Business Agent John Miles as the Erie Sea Wolves right fielder Daniel Cabreba hits a fast-hit groundball to shallow right field. 

“Pile on boys, Pile on,” Miles shouts as Andrew Navigato rounds the base to score the second run of the inning for the hometown Sea Wolves, the AA affiliate of the Tigers. 

The Sea Wolves, backed by the cheers of scores of union members, who attended Erie’s “Labor Night at the Ballpark” last week, would score four runs in the bottom of the 4th inning. Using the momentum of the 4th inning explosion, the Sea Wolves would go on to win 7-3 and reclaim first place in the Eastern League’s Southwest Division.

The Sea Wolves weren’t the only team feeling the momentum at the ballpark last week. The 1,500 members of UE Local 506, locomotive workers employed by Wabtec, are preparing to go on strike on June 9th and feel a sense of momentum they haven’t felt for years. 

Nearly a decade ago, 5,000 members of UE Local 506 were employed as locomotive engineers by General Electric at their historic Lawrence Park facility that has been open for 86 years. 

However, over the past decade, General Electric slowly shifted production work away to a non-union facility in Fort Worth, Texas, and one in Mexico. In the late 2010s, a mere 700 UE members worked at the plant.

With many fearful that the plant could close in Erie, which has seen its population drop from 120,000 in 1990 to 94,000 in 2020, the union found itself in a weak position. Some residents even blamed the UE for forcing GE to shift production out of Erie. 

“I started working here in the late 1970s and I got a big list on my computer of something like 45 big shops that have closed in Erie since then,” says Erie AFL-CIO President Jack Lee. “A lot of people have left town over the years. And a lot of people have a bitter sour attitude as a result of it”. 

But now, things are looking more upbeat for UE members in Erie as they increasingly move to strike next week.

In 2019, Wabtec purchased the facility from GE. Wabtec kept bringing new work to the plant, including biodiesel locomotives and other clean energy projects. Now, the facility has more than doubled, with approximately 1,500 UE members on the payroll in Erie. 

“I think they’re going after more work, which is a benefit to all of us,” says Miles.” The more diverse you can make a product line, the better. Flex drive is a big deal right now. We started doing mass transit work, and Wabtec is bringing in a variety of product lines”. 

However, while the plant has added workers since Wabtec took over in 2019, the company used its first contract negotiations four years ago to roll back key union rights. 

While most union contracts in the US only allow workers to strike when a contract expires, the contract at GE in Erie allowed the union to “strike over grievances.” If the company failed to follow the contract, rather than fight it out in arbitration and courts for years, the UE could walk out mid-contract, giving the union at the plant tremendous leverage that most unions lack. 

When Wabtec took over in 2019, they severely rolled back the right to “strike over grievances.” 

“So most unions in Wabtec do not have the right to strike at all; we have the right to strike over very specific topics like sub-contracting, temporary or transfer of work, timeliness of a grievance response,” says Miles. “But we do not have the right to strike over grievances again.” 

Now with the plant expanding again, the UE plans to strike to win back the right to strike over grievances when their contract expires at midnight on June 9th. 

The UE says that under Wabtec’s ownership, management needs to enforce the contract. Instead, they’ve been forcing the union to spend valuable time and money defending their union contract in arbitration. 

“I think GE had a better understanding of the workforce,” says Miles. “Wabtec wants to do what they want when they want and that’s what it’s all about: control.” 

Many unions across the country increasingly face this problem, according to a new School of Labor and Employment Relations report at the University of Illinois-Champaign entitled “Labor’s Peace Paradox; The Impact of the Right to Strike over Grievance Procedures”. The report found that since 2019 that grievances are now more than twice as likely to be rejected by employers and taken to arbitration.

“Since 2019, the new precedent of frequent grievance denials runs the risk of encouraging cynical attitudes among the workforce toward the dispute resolution process,” wrote the report’s authors. “if it is viewed or used as a management tool more suited to stonewalling labor disputes than to solving them, the grievance process risks becoming a contributor to dysfunctional labor relations.” 

It’s a process that union members say is designed to force workers to lose faith in their union when they can’t enforce the terms of the contract. Since Wabtec took over in 2019, the number of grievances taken arbitration at the plant has increased ten-fold. The average arbitration costs the UE on average $9,000.

“They want you to take it to arbitration. The company doesn’t care about the grievance process,” says Miles. “They don’t care about settling grievances, and that’s the frustration”. 

Rather than risk being unable to enforce their union contract, the UE’s planned strike is to regain the full right to strike over grievances. 

“The right to the strike over is grievances is probably the biggest thing that we could fight for right now,” says Miles. “There’s nothing in our contract right now that holds this company accountable for any answer they give us.” 

While some in the community fear a strike could lead to another plant closing in Erie, UE reminds them that they can rally public support for their cause. Following the pandemic, unions have won new popularity that they have enjoyed for decades. According to Gallup, more than 71% of workers approve of unions, their highest approval rating since 1965

Since the beginning of the pandemic in March of 2020, there have been nearly 3,000 strikes, according to Payday Report’s Strike Tracker, contributing to membership growth for some unions like the 35,000 member UE, which in the past year and a half alone has gained more than 10,000 new members, primarily among graduate employees. 

“I mean, it’s a whole different world now,” says national UE President Carl Rosen. “Look, what the younger generation has been through since then. For 20 years, they have been falling behind rather than getting ahead. This doesn’t work for them. They get it that you can’t rely on the government. They know they can’t rely on the employers to take care of them. They know that they’re gonna have to take care of themselves through a union”. 

At Mile’s plant in Erie, he says that younger new members have a new sense of enthusiasm towards the UE that he hasn’t seen in years. 

“We just hired 250 new people, and, I tell you what, the new generation coming in is on board. They’re all about it. They stand with us. I mean, we’re all one union. That’s what it’s about unity”. 

With the union contract set to expire at midnight, Miles says that his union is prepared to strike if they have to win back the “right to strike over grievances,” which most of the labor movement abandoned long ago. 

“We are ready to go. We are standing together arm and arm and I couldn’t be more proud of this union,” says Miles as we drink beers and watch the hometown Erie Sea Wolves pile on runs to beat the Somerset Patriot 7-3. 

Donate to Help Us Cover this Strike in Erie & the “Summer of Strikes” Ahead

About the Author

Mike Elk
Mike Elk is an Emmy-nominated labor reporter and alumni of the Guardian. In addition to filing nearly 2,000 stories from 46 states, Elk traveled with Lula from Sáo Bernando do Campos all the way to the Oval Office in the White House. Credited by the Washington Post for being the first reporter to track the strike wave systematically, Elk started Payday Report using his NLRB settlement from being illegally fired for union organizing in 2015. He lives in his hometown of Pittsburgh and works frequently in Rio de Janeiro, where he attended college at PUC-Rio. He speaks both Portuguese and Pittsburghese fluently. His email is [email protected]