Wabtec strike passes 30-day mark as workers push for greener locomotives

By: - July 25, 2023 10:08 am

The EPA’s tier system addresses emissions from locomotives. (Photo by Luke Sharrett/Getty Images)

PITTSBURGH — Workers with the United Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers of America union (UE), who make locomotive engines in Erie for Wabtec Corp., have been on strike for just over 30 days. The workers have a bargaining session with the company this week, and along with negotiations over wages and benefits, the 1,400 members of UE are asking the company to become more environmentally friendly, by allowing its members to build a certain percentage of its greenest locomotives at the Erie plant. 

UE president Scott Slawson said the union put a proposal before the company that would increase how many “tier 4” locomotives it makes at its Erie plant. 

The tier system is a set of standards for railroad locomotives from the Environmental Protection Agency that dates back to 1998. Each locomotive is assigned to a tier based on when it was made, which determines its emissions requirements; essentially, older and dirtier machines are not held to the same requirements as newer ones. 

The EPA introduced the strictest tier 3 and 4 standards for newly built locomotives beginning in 2008. The agency estimates that a tier 4 locomotive “represents a 90 percent [particulate matter] emissions reduction, and an 80 percent [nitrogen oxide] emissions reduction” compared to a tier 2 locomotive.”

Building more of the locomotives in Erie “would be a benefit to the company, to the community we live in and obviously a benefit to the economy as well,” Slawson said. “Wabtec preaches that they’re all about making the transition into greener jobs and greener technologies, but they just kind of flat out ignored us at the bargaining table with those demands. They preach that they want to become a green company, but they don’t want to partner with the union who’s driving toward the same outcome.”

U.S. Rep. Summer Lee speaks at a rally for Wabtec workers on July 6, 2023. (Kim Lyons/Pennsylvania Capital Star)

The UE points to an April report from the Political Economy Research Institute at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, which estimated that if Wabtec manufactured 1,000 tier 4 locomotives in Erie each year, it could create between 2,600 and 4,300 new jobs. It would also bolster the regional economy, the report found, adding between 3,060 and 5,100 jobs in Erie County.

Tim Bader, Wabtec director of external & engineering communications said in an email to the Capital-Star that the company was the first to develop and commercialize the tier 4 locomotive in 2015, adding that it’s “an industry leader in developing and building sustainable solutions such as low- and zero-emission locomotives.” 

Bader said Wabtec has a “holistic” strategy in how it develops and produces locomotives, not a site-specific approach, and has multiple locomotive sites in the U.S. and around the world.

“This strategy is the best way to maximize the company’s combined global resources and to serve customers,” Bader said. “All of the sites are capable of building low and zero emission locomotives. Production sites for these types of locomotives are determined on a case-by-case basis factoring in plant capacity, location, cost competitiveness, and schedule.”

The striking workers held a rally in Pittsburgh outside of Wabtec’s headquarters earlier this month, and U.S. Rep. Summer Lee, D-12th District, came to show her support. 

“I want to thank you all so much for waging the fight,” Lee told the audience, which included striking Wabtec workers and striking members of the Post-Gazette’s newsroom guild.

 “We know that companies like Wabtec are never going to move unless we, the people, move them. We are sending a message to Wabtec and every other company in western Pennsylvania that this is a union town. We’re going to let them know how strong our movement really is. And this is how we’re going to win the green jobs of the future.”

For his part, Slawson said his members are prepared to dig in and press for what they want from the company. “The resolve is amazing to be honest with you, after 30 days on strike, I don’t hear anybody complaining about it,” he said.

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Kim Lyons
Kim Lyons

Kim is a veteran western Pennsylvania journalist who has covered people and trends in politics and business for local and national publications.