“We Refused to Be Pushed”

This is part of a series on the Wabtec/GE Transportation strike in Erie, PA.

When UE Locals 506 and 618 held a solidarity rally outside the WABTEC headquarters, union sister Vanessa Jones was right there waving the UE flag in Wilmerding, PA.  “Who’re we? UE!”  Vanessa Jones is the person you want telling the community why you’re there, and why they should stand with you. “You gotta let the community know what’s going on.  We got a lot of support. A lot of energy. Positive energy.”  The sister is a forklift operator at the WABTEC/GE Transportation plant in Erie, Pennsylvania.  She moved to Erie and the locomotive plant in 2008, after the GE lighting plant in Cleveland closed, where she had worked in for years.    

Having grown up in a union family, her mother worked for General Motors, she wasn’t new to the fight for workers’ rights in the world of American manufacturing.  It was never a question of “‘if I’m going to go strike”, it was ‘when do they need me to come strike’. I had to go and do it, not just for myself, but for those who did it before me”, she said Thursday morning, hours after the strike ended. 

“They did it for me, so I’m going to do it for them.”

In 1969, the last time UE members at the GE Transportation plant went out on strike, they stayed out for 102 days.  So, when UE members went out on strike in the February cold this year, they knew what they could be looking at.  It’s not easy to go out on strike, for anyone.  The prospect of not having a paycheck for an unforeseeable length of time is   

When she’s not navigating the 900-acre manufacturing facility on her forklift, Vanessa cares for her three small grandchildren.  Barely old enough for elementary school, they know what their grandmother does when she goes to work on second shift. “Mama works on choo-choos,” a train goes by on the tracks, “that’s mama’s job” they say to her.

“This was the first real strike I’ve been involved with. This was something different for me.  Yes, I was a little scared. But I had faith.  Faith.  That’s what kept me going.  I got up and prayed every night.   Just prayed. That’s all you can do with these things.” 

The proposal from WABTEC, a corporation which had no problem giving multimillion-dollar bonuses to 20 executives, demanded a two-tiered wage system with a 38% pay cut and mandatory overtime from the plant’s workers, on top of the cuts already made to their retiree healthcare and pensions.  The only way to stand up to this kind of corporate greed, is a strike.  “The first couple days was a little rough.  Tensions were really high.  Things started mellowing down.  It was great that we were able to communicate on the [picket] line.  Nothing got out of hand on either side. It was great”.

While the members of UE Local 506 and 618 were surrounded by the solidarity of their union brothers and sisters from across the Labor movement and the Erie community, it’s not easy to be on strike.  “It hurt to see the scabs going in.  It hurt.  No, they’re not doing this to us,” Vanessa recalled. “We know they couldn’t do the job we were doing. Now my guys gotta go in and fix everything those guys messed up.”

Wabtec CEO Raymond Betler called the striking workers “childish”. Well, the UE brothers and sisters had something to say about that “We aren’t ‘childish’.  We are grown-ups who’re going to stand up for what we believe in.  What’s childish is, you came in and tried to bully us.  And we stood up and showed you. We refused to be pushed,” stated Sister Jones.

After nine days, and an outpouring of community support, UE members got what they had asked Wabtec/GE Transportation for in the first place, a 90-day negotiating window.  On Wednesday night, Vanessa was ready to go to bed, “then my phone went off, and I checked it, just in case.  And it was just YES!” The end of the strike after union representatives sat down with Wabtec with a federal mediator on Wednesday came as a very welcome surprise to the members. “I missed working.  I missed knowing that I had a paycheck so that I could provide for myself and my three grandchildren.”

When asked, what she would say to Raymond Betler, Vanessa took a moment.  Then she had this to say.  “We’re doing what we get paid to do, and we’re doing it because we love to.  Come in the shop and see what we do. Stand next to us; talk to us. Ask us questions. Don’t just assume and don’t just throw us under the table the way you did. That was very unappreciative, and we didn’t like it.  And we do deserve an apology, because none of us is childish.  We are grown men and women and we deserve to be treated as such. . . United we stand and divided we fall. And we stood together, and we stood strong.  I’m proud of us, and we showed him.” 

We UE Strong.

Part Three is coming soon.