Today, 1,700 workers at a GE plant in Pennsylvania went on strike, the first big work stoppage in U.S. manufacturing in three years, according to HuffPost. Workers at the Erie, PA plant haven’t gone on strike themselves since 1969.
Members of the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE) accuse Wabtec Corp., who recently merged with GE’s locomotive division, of trying to implement mandatory overtime, lower pay for new workers, and the use of temporary workers. The union failed to secure a temporary extension of their GE contract with Wabtec, leading them to authorize the strike.
Wabtec, as the new owner, is required by law to recognize the union. But they can negotiate a new contract.
“We are disappointed in their decision,” Deia Campanelli, a Wabtec spokeswoman, told HuffPost. “These are great-paying jobs for that community, for that region.”
According to union members, up till now, working in the factory, where pay averages $35 an hour, has been pretty good.
UE spokesman Jonathan Kissam told HuffPost that the workers aren’t opposed to overtime—many already volunteer for it. But they don’t want to be forced into it, which they fear could cut into time with their families.
Workers also concerned that hiring new employees for lower pay—approximately 38 percent lower than current wages, according to Kissam—could create divisions in the union.
“This is a multi-generational plant. Some of them, their grandparents worked there,” Kissam told HuffPost. “So they’re unwilling to sell out their own children.”
“Wabtec wants to turn this into an Amazon warehouse,” he says.
Wabtec says that the new workers would be hired at a “competitive wage” and that a two tier wage system is necessary to compete in the global market. In a local op-ed, Greg Sbrocco, a Wabtec senior VP, said the two tier system was ”a standard practice by U.S. manufacturing companies to aggressively compete with competitors in low-cost countries like China or Mexico.”
Workers don’t agree.
“We feel the terms and conditions they put forth on our members were unacceptable,” Scott Slawson, president of UE Local 506, told HuffPost. “We felt it was best just to stand the picket line.”
In a letter last week, Sen. Bernie Sanders called on Wabtec to honor their agreement with the union. Today, he told HuffPost he was “proud to stand” with the union in its “fight against the Wabtec corporation to maintain decent wages and working conditions.”
The GE workers join others in the country who are currently on strike, including teachers in Oakland. Teachers in West Virginia are also considering striking again, just a year after they walked out over low pay and managed to secure a new contract with a five percent pay raise. The new potential is in response to a bill that would allow charter schools in the state.