ERIE: Largest Industrial Strike in Years at Former GE Factory

By Alex Meins

On Monday, workers at Wabtec’s newly-acquired General Electric Transportation factory in Erie, PA, voted to go on strike.

This represents the largest industrial strike to happen in the United States since the strike of 6,500 oil refinery workers in 2015.

A total of 1,700 locomotive assembly workers have enthusiastically walked out to protest a 35% wage cut, blocking the gateways to the plant.

The workers are also protesting other issues including mandatory overtime with no pay and a two-tier wage system where new hires would make 38% of regular wages. This means most workers are facing a massive wage cut while all workers who are rehired after being furloughed would start anew at much lower pay than before. This is a classic “divide and conquer” technique of the capitalists, whether through furlough maneuvering or through pay differentials to divide those within the plant.

Erie mayor Joe Schember, a former banker, along with Democratic Party Governor Tom Wolf, have deployed the Lawrence Park Police Department and the Pennsylvania State Police, founded in response to the Anthracite Coal Strike of 1902, to escort management into the plant.

The police are “picketing in solidarity” with the permission of the leadership of United Electric Workers 506, who told membership to keep things peaceful and to not attack strikebreaking management who have been entering the plant grounds.

Union leadership has behaved just as the police have, preparing to protect the coming strikebreakers from harassment without interruption and maintaining the social peace.

While production in the plant is currently in a lull as only new train cars are being tested, the possibility of Wabtec massively busing in strikebreakers backed by police—taking up their class role as the hired thugs of the ruling class—is on the horizon.

Within months of acquiring General Electric Transportation, Wabtec rushed billions to invest in the assembly facility in Erie and the engine production plant in Grove City, as well as the nonunion assembly facility in Fort Worth, Texas. At the same time, Wabtec has moved to simply tear apart the agreements and benefits of the workers. This is in spite of the fact that Wabtec CEO Raymond Betler received $3.35 million in bonuses in 2017 and cashed in on $3.8 million in stock options in 2018.

Bourgeois media mouthpieces have argued on Wabtec’s behalf: why pay these angry workers at all if they are not “competitive” with the poorer transportation workers in the Deep South or in other countries?

Once a center of industry, the working class in Erie, just as in Pittsburgh, PA, and Weirton, WV, has faced brazen attacks from the bourgeoisie in the form of mass lay-offs, factory closures, and scheming fire-then-rehire for lower wages techniques. One in four Erie residents currently live in poverty as a result of this imperialist program of deindustrialization.

erie GE plant welder

The manufacturing sector in the US has been reorganized by the ruling class and has rebounded in large part through the hiring of temporary or low paid workers. The proletariat of Erie knows full well the sting of temp work in the plastic press, metal, and tool and die shops.

In the 1980s workers’ attempts to buy out and run the factories themselves in Pittsburgh and Weirton met with failure, as the amount of capital required to run them and maintain profitability in the global market was too great. In both cities workers used Employee Stock Ownership plans to buy their mills, while accepting cuts to their own pay. However, this merely delayed lay-offs and the eventual closure of the mills.

These failures show the stark limits of “syndicalism” and a one-sided focus on localist “worker’s self management.” Still a popular “alternative” brought up whenever the bosses squeeze the workers in the area, the workers should not look to Employee Ownership schemes as saving graces down the line.

United Electric is no stranger to these snakeoil bargains. They have been known as a “militant” and “independent” union since their leadership of the occupation of Republic Windows and Doors in 2008, and more recently, for their demands that eminent domain be used by the town of Taunton, Massachusetts, to prevent a shop from being closed. But just as United Steelworkers sold out oil refinery workers and ATI workers in 2015 and 2016, UE 506 is negotiating a settlement with the bosses and opposing violence from the working class.

Erie United Electric 506’s leadership will undoubtedly capitulate and sell out the workers in this current fight. All unions in imperialist states are the diplomatic branch of the bourgeoisie, following the boss’ law and negotiating percentages of workers’ pay away from them. Workers have seen in 2011 how UE 506 sold out newer and younger workers by conceding to General Electric, agreeing to charge them higher deductibles for health insurance and getting rid of a guaranteed pension to them in the form of a finance capital-ran 401(k) plan vulnerable to a volatile market as an “option” for retirement.

While UE local 506 was actually founded under the leadership of Communist Party United States of America (CPUSA) cadre John Nelson, the unionization of the transportation division of production there happened in the context of the revisionist tendency of Browderism (named after chairman of the CPUSA Earl Browder) being in command of the Party.

Communists are not opposed to the articulation of economic demands but they are opposed to economism, which is the false theory that economic struggle is the most widely applicable means of drawing the masses into the political movement, believing that workers getting a few cents in a raise produces Communist political consciousness.

Browderism, embracing economism, produced a trade union outlook and industrial unionism among its members that confined most of their work to organizing around mere economic demands that ended struggle upon achievement, and that also supported class collaboration, overestimating how the Party could win leadership over increasingly corporativist industrial unions, with the Party liquidating by 1945.

In UE 506 as in many other union locals and committees nationwide, this “left” economism just became plain economism through non-revolutionary organizers (Catholic and liberal trade unionists) advocating similar strike tactics and strike leadership.

With the beginning of the Popular Front period, John Nelson and other cadre followed Earl Browder’s leadership as the CPUSA liquidated into the reactionary New Deal coalition within the Democratic Party, which included Nelson signing a “no strike” and wage freeze pledge for the local and, beyond Erie, the abandonment of organizing in the Black Nation and forced conscription of Puerto Ricans to fight for the imperialist US military in the Second World War.

While Communists see the warehouse, shop, plant, and mill as being in a constant state of struggle, Communists do not enter unions to become union leaders (what is sometimes called “entryism”) but instead adopt specific strategic principles in relation to intervening in point of production struggles.

Turning off the faucet of surplus value that flows into the mouths of Wabtec executives displays the potential of the working class, but striking is only one tactic which by itself can be easily swept away by further capitalist restructuring and by the inevitable treason of labor aristocrat union bosses.

Lenin observed the “socialist” leaders in the Second International and trade union movement supporting the First World War and coined the term “labor aristocracy,” to describe the leadership of unions which is bought off by the bourgeoisie, who by its class position in its collaborating proximity to the capitalist class diverts the revolutionary movement into the fascist movement or social fascist movement and who focuses merely on bread and butter issues (seeing other working class struggles as a “distraction” from what happens in the shop). These labor aristocrats seek to stop all revolutionary action through their acceptance and enforcement of capitalist legality on the rank in file.

Militants must treat the plant as a site of guerrilla struggle. They must steer workers’ confidence away from their union stewards and kick the police out of the picket line, preparing to block all shipments of products and equipment out of the plant. Workers must be won away from any elements of national chauvinism and toward solidarity with the workers of the world.

Militants should inflict reprisals on those that wish to cross the picket. They must build links beyond the gates and pickets where their barrels are burning with all the workers who go in early in the morning and late at night along the railroad tracks and shops that line up along E/W 12th Street, as well as those in Grove City and Fort Worth. This includes poorer workers that live in Franklin Terrace across the street from the picket as well.

The auto workers must dare to struggle in order to win. To this end the workers must uphold and enact the slogan “Combat and Resist!” At the moment, Wabtec workers are showing only the smallest signs of their capabilities because of weak leadership.

True proletarian leadership—Communist leadership—connects this economic struggle with all the other struggles of the masses and seeks to unite the working class to do more than achieve short-term demands and conquer power. This is what militants must strive towards, becoming tribunes of the whole people through ever-heightening methods of militant solidarity with the working class in its struggles, and through the reconstitution of the Communist Party!