Skip to main content

Why are the billionaires always laughing?

Because they know the corporate media will never call bullshit on their bullshit.

Why are the billionaires laughing?

It’s easy to laugh when the corporate press treats you as a glorious success instead of the epitome of a broken social order. They laugh because they know the corporate media prefers to fawn over them rather than hold them to account.

Today, we ask you to support our nonprofit journalism because we are not impressed by billionaires flying into space, their corporations despoiling our health and planet, or their vast fortunes safely concealed in tax havens across the globe. We are not laughing.

We are hard at work digging out the truth. Please support this independent journalism today by donating to our critical Fall Campaign. We cannot do it without you. Thank you. -- Craig Brown, Co-founder

Support Our Work -- Join the small group of generous readers who donate, keeping Common Dreams free for millions of people each year. Every donation—large or small—helps us bring you the news that matters.

union members

Nearly 2,000 union members walked off their jobs at a locomotive manufacturing plant in Erie, Pennsylvania just one day after the plant began operating under its new owner, the Wabtec Corporation. (Photo: United Electrical Workers/Facebook)

Pennsylvania Workers Are Waging the Biggest US Manufacturing Strike in the Trump Era

"People would rather work than be on strike, but they're not willing to hand every aspect of their life over to the boss, and they're not willing to create a permanent underclass of low wage workers." 

Sarah Lahm

 by In These Times

On February 26, nearly 2,000 members of the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE) walked off their jobs at a longstanding locomotive manufacturing plant in Erie, Pennsylvania, in the largest U.S. strike in the manufacturing sector since 2016. The move came just one day after the plant began operating under its new owner, the Wabtec Corporation of Wilmerding, Pennsylvania.

"This is corporate greed and union-busting 101."
—Brad McCurdy, licensed journeyman electrician

In 2018, Wabtec merged with GE Transportation, a division of General Electric that has operated a locomotive plant in Erie for more than 100 years. UE members have had a contract with GE since 1938, according to union spokesperson Jonathan Kissam, and that contract has provided generations of Erie residents with what Kissam says are "good, Rust Belt jobs."

Those jobs have afforded the plant's employees a more stable lifestyle, with wages that average $35 per hour, and a Monday through Friday work schedule that Kissam says has allowed UE members to be active participants in life outside of the plant. "Our members are very involved in the Erie community as Little League coaches, at churches and with veterans' causes," Kissam asserted in an interview with In These Times.

It is this quality of life, and this connection to the broader Erie community, that UE members are trying to protect for themselves and future generations by going on strike, Kissam says.

That's because the plant's new owners, Wabtec, has declined thus far to honor UE's contract with GE—even on a temporary, 30-day basis, as proposed by the union. The company has, instead, tried to impose immediate changes to employees' working conditions. Those changes include a proposal for wage cuts of up to 38 percent for new hires and recalled workers, creating what union representatives such as Scott Slawson, president of UE Local 506, have called a "permanent second tier of lower wages."

Kissam recalls observing a recent UE member meeting. When participants were asked how many had parents or children who also worked at the locomotive plant, many hands shot up. These strong family ties make UE members especially averse to any two-tier wage proposal, in Kissam's view, because "they see two tiers as selling out their own children and the Erie community."

A Huffington Post article noted that this fear is justified. "Unions are leery of two-tier systems for good reason," Dave Jamieson reports. As well-paid, older workers retire, they are then replaced with less established employees who "know they'll never make the same money as their veteran counterparts." This has the potential to create discord within the union, an issue Jamieson says has reared its head in other recent, large scale union negotiations.

Brad McCurdy is a licensed journeyman electrician who has worked at the Erie manufacturing plant for the past 14 years. As a UE member, he tells In These Times he is feeling both pride and kinship while on strike, as well as fear for the outcome.

Regarding Wabtec's reluctance to agree to a 30-day extension of UE's current labor contract, while also demanding what he sees as "major concessions" around wages and benefits, McCurdy does not mince words: "This is corporate greed and union-busting 101." He points to Wabtec's significant profit margins and insists that the union's willingness to strike is "directly tied to preserving jobs for our community, and preserving family-sustaining wages."

In a February 26 opinion piece published in the Erie Times News, Greg Sbrocco, the manager of Wabtec's manufacturing plants, sought to justify lower wages by claiming they are a "standard practice by U.S. manufacturing companies to aggressively compete with competitors in low-cost countries like China or Mexico." Yet, Wabtec is a highly profitable corporation whose sales are expected to shoot north of $9 billion in 2019, according to recent news reports.

Wabtech CEO Raymond Betler also netted a compensation package worth $3.5 million last year, according to a statement put out by Vermont senator and 2020 presidential candidate Bernie Sanders. Sanders has offered support for the striking UE members by insisting that "corporate executives must not use the merger between GE and Wabtec to hurt workers." Other news sites have made note of the fact that this merger was an $11 billion deal.

Kissam argues that the Erie plant is a prime example of what happens when corporations seek out lower wages in an attempt to compete with what Sbrocco calls "low-cost countries." In 2011, while GE Transportation still owned the Erie plant, the company moved hundreds of jobs to a new locomotive manufacturing site in Fort Worth, Texas, a right-to-work state where unions have little power.

In 2017, GE Transportation then announced plans to close the Erie plant altogether and move all locomotive manufacturing jobs to the non-union Fort Worth site. These plans were then scuttled as GE Transportation sought to sell off its transportation division instead. Union leaders, however, allege that the attempt to move all manufacturing jobs to Texas backfired as company managers realized that building a large locomotive is not simple and, in fact, requires the kind of highly skilled, permanent workforce the Erie plant provides.

As a 2018 Erie Times-News article states, GE Transportation has been a successful operation, with customer orders and company profits piling up. This point was echoed in a February 20 press release from UE, which stated that, "GE Transportation has consistently earned profits of over 16 percent for the last five years, driven by the skilled work done by UE members at the flagship plant in Erie."

"People would rather work than be on strike, but they're not willing to hand every aspect of their life over to the boss, and they're not willing to create a permanent underclass of low wage workers."
—Jonathan Kissam, union spokesperson

Kissam maintains that UE members were optimistic when Wabtec bought out GE Transportation in 2018. Relationships with GE leadership had become rocky, he says, and workers were hopeful about being under Wabtec’s umbrella, since the company seemed likely to be more stable and less in the business of shaking up operations than GE had been. Right from the start, however, UE leaders accused Wabtec of refusing to negotiate in good faith.

"Wabtech told us their terms and conditions in December," Kissam says, but "serious negotiations" did not start until earlier in February. Members quickly objected to Wabtec's insistence on such things as "mandatory overtime and arbitrary schedules," says Kissam. When Wabtec took over plant operations on February 25, the plant's workers decided to walk off the job rather than bend to the new owner's conditions.

Wabtec has maintained hat its proposals are reasonable, forward-looking and competitive for the region.

"People would rather work than be on strike, but they're not willing to hand every aspect of their life over to the boss, and they're not willing to create a permanent underclass of low wage workers," Kissam insisted. He also notes that the strike comes at a time of renewed public support for labor rights. "I think UE members also have a sense that there is a greater willingness to fight among workers more broadly," thanks in part to what Kissam calls "the success of the recent teachers strikes."

So far, there are no new contract talks scheduled for Wabtec and UE, meaning there is no clear end in sight to the strike. For McCurdy, the fight is clear. Wabtec is making millions, he says, "while asking us to make concessions. This is dirty pool."

© 2021 In These Times

Sarah Lahm

Sarah Lahm is a Minneapolis-based writer and researcher. Her work has appeared in outlets such as The Progressive, where she writes the Midwest Dispatch column and contributes pieces to the Public School Shakedown site.

This is the world we live in. This is the world we cover.

Because of people like you, another world is possible. There are many battles to be won, but we will battle them together—all of us. Common Dreams is not your normal news site. We don't survive on clicks. We don't want advertising dollars. We want the world to be a better place. But we can't do it alone. It doesn't work that way. We need you. If you can help today—because every gift of every size matters—please do. Without Your Support We Simply Don't Exist.

'Who Will You Throw Overboard?' Manchin Targeted for Trying to Sink Democratic Agenda

West Virginians gathered at the senator's yacht to demand that he stop blocking the "popular and needed" Build Back Better package.

Jessica Corbett ·

After Getting 'Stealth Bailout' During Pandemic, US Corporations Try to Kill Proposed Tax Hikes

"When it's time to finally put workers first, big businesses are spending millions to maintain their advantage and preserve the status quo," said Kyle Herrig of Accountable.US.

Jessica Corbett ·

'Disgraceful': Just 9 Republicans Join With Dems to Hold Steve Bannon in Criminal Contempt

The vote "reveals just how far the Republican Party has fallen" since Trump took control as GOP's de facto leader, said one pro-democracy advocate.

Jon Queally ·

After Months of Organizing, Amazon Workers Ready Union Drive at Staten Island Warehouse

"The energy and culture we built over the last six months with these workers, it's been very strong," said Amazon Labor Union president Chris Smalls. "Everybody's excited."

Kenny Stancil ·

Top Dem Calls on Biden to Toss Legally 'Erroneous' Trump Memo and Ratify Equal Rights Amendment

The renewed push comes nearly 50 years after Congress passed the amendment.

Andrea Germanos ·

Support our work.

We are independent, non-profit, advertising-free and 100% reader supported.

Subscribe to our newsletter.

Quality journalism. Progressive values.
Direct to your inbox.

Subscribe to our Newsletter.

Common Dreams, Inc. Founded 1997. Registered 501(c3) Non-Profit | Privacy Policy
Common Dreams Logo