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The Wabtec Strike

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I was contacted by a Philadelphia Inquirer reporter to give some context to the current Wabtec strike going on in Erie, which is a classic case of an industrial employer seeking to bust their union through implementing a two-tier contract and engaging in total warfare on the future of the workforce.

When a new owner called Wabtec took control last month of General Electric’s historic locomotive manufacturing plant in Erie as part of an $11 billion deal, the bosses must have thought it was going to be easy to bully 1,700 United Electoral workers into a less favorable contract that would have started any new hires at much lower wage than factory veterans.

Why wouldn’t the union accept this shotgun marriage? Pennsylvania-based Wabtec (formerly Westinghouse Air Brake Technologies) called on the same playbook that manufacturing execs have used to hold down America’s blue-collar paychecks for decades. The locomotive plant wouldn’t be able to compete with rivals in Mexico or China without major givebacks, management insisted. And if the union didn’t cave immediately, Wabtec could just shift the work to other lower-cost plants away from the Great Lakes.

So those bosses must have been stunned when union leaders didn’t sign on the dotted line. Instead, their 1,700 members walked out — the first U.S. labor strike by manufacturing workers in nearly three years.

The fact that it’s the first manufacturing strike in three years is telling in so many sad ways. The jobs don’t exist anymore and where they do, people are scared. What got highlighted out of my interview is my rejection of the idea that low unemployment numbers are making workers feel better about taking risks by going on strike. Discussion of unemployment number is a really facile way of understanding the state of the economy that are used by both the media and politicians as a way to talk about it without doing any work. Yes, most people have jobs today. But those numbers tell us nothing about all the workers having to work two or three jobs to make ends meet, those who have to leave children home alone because they can’t afford child care, those unable to work 40 hours consistently or those forced to work 70 hours or can’t get ahead because of student or medical debt. The lived experience of workers today is not one of a successful economy that is leading to upward mobility and a great future. It’s deeply contingent and scary. That, I believe, is part of the reason for the recent strike wave.

There’s something in the air. Many labor experts say that strikes — not unlike the global waves of political unrest that occurred in 2011, 1989 or 1968 — can be contagious, as workers see and adopt winning tactics from elsewhere. But in America right now, the uprising has been compounded by mounting frustration over income inequality, and how buying power for the middle class has stayed flat for years while incomes from top executives and investors have skyrocketed.

“The word ‘strike’ has again become part of the American lexicon,” Erik Loomis, the University of Rhode Island labor historian and author of A History of America in Ten Strikes, told me. Loomis disputed one argument over the rise in labor unrest recently floated by Trump administration officials, that the current low U.S. unemployment rate of 4 percent is giving middle-class workers the courage to take risks. Instead, Loomis sees rising outrage over a system where most income gains are falling to the top 10 percent.

Loomis said “strikes are actually scary — especially when you’re a worker and you have a family and you don’t know what the impact’s going to be. But if you see them [strikes] working elsewhere, that can give you confidence.” He said many workers— squeezed by taking on extra jobs to make ends meet — are thinking, “if this is ‘the good economy,’ what happens in the next recession?”

A couple of days ago, the union and company called a 90-day truce, so we will see what happens. At the very least, the strike forced at least a temporary cave on the company.

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