Wabtec says progress made in bargaining talks with union

The union representing locomotive workers at its Erie plant went on strike in June

By: - August 17, 2023 6:30 pm

Wabtec HQ in Pittsburgh (Capital-Star photo)

After a bargaining session on Thursday, Wabtec Corp. reached a tentative agreement with striking workers from the United Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers of America union (UE), at its Erie plant, over vacation scheduling, according to the company. Bargaining is set to resume on Tuesday, Aug. 22, and Wednesday Aug. 23, the company said. 

The workers, who have been on strike for two months, make locomotive engines in Erie for Wabtec. In addition to improvements to wages and benefits, the 1,400 members of UE at Wabtec want the company to become more environmentally friendly, and allow Erie workers to build a percentage of Wabtec’s greenest locomotives. 

But ahead of Thursday’s negotiations, Erie County Executive Brenton Davis said he was concerned the company was considering closing the Erie plant altogether. 

Davis said in a statement on Wednesday that “representatives of a major third-party contractor” that makes locomotive components currently assembled at the Erie plant had visited the Wabtec site, which he interpreted as “a troubling development that suggests the company could be considering a plant closure.” 

He urged both sides to reach an agreement on a contract proposal. “This plant should not disappear without at least a vote of the workers whose livelihoods are at stake,” Davis added. “Any strike, lay off, or plant closure would have grave effects on our local economy and in the households of those abruptly unemployed.”

Scott Slawson, the president of UE Local 506, said in a statement to the Capital-Star late Wednesday that there had not been any talk of closing the Erie site during negotiations to that point. Ahead of Thursday’s session, Slawson said he hoped “that anything the company has to say would be said to the union first across the bargaining table.”

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

He added that the negotiations to that point had been “one-sided” with the company holding its positions. 

“For whatever reason the company has their way of wanting to do things and it’s not always in the best interest of the Erie community and the people who work in this plant,” Slawson said, adding he remained “hopeful” that an agreement could be reached. “If they would put their thinking caps together with us I’m sure we can get this done.”

The company declined to comment on Davis’ remarks, but spokesman Tim Bader told the Capital-Star that the company sought to reach an agreement with the union that would “position its employees and the Erie site for success.”

Bader added that the Erie site “has been a laggard in terms of cost and efficiency for years, as compared to other Wabtec sites and suppliers. These challenges seriously hinder the site’s ability to attract new or even keep existing production work in Erie.” He said that in the “current climate, the company is being forced to consider difficult decisions to continue supporting its customers and deliver on its commitments.”

He did not elaborate on what those decisions entailed.

Greener locomotives good for all

One of the things the union proposed was that the company increase how many “tier 4” locomotives it makes at the Erie plant. 

The tier system is a 25-year-old set of standards for railroad locomotives from the Environmental Protection Agency. Each locomotive is assigned to a tier based on when it was made, which determines its emissions requirements. Older machines are not expected to meet the same emissions requirements as newer ones.

The EPA introduced the toughest tier 3 and 4 standards for newly built locomotives 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.”

The union’s position, supported by an April report from the Political Economy Research Institute at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, was that building more of the tier 4 locomotives in Erie would be good for the company and the local economy, and ultimately the environment. 

Wabtec was one of the first companies to develop and commercialize the tier 4 locomotive in 2015, and Bader said last month its strategy about how it produces locomotives isn’t site-specific.

U.S. Sen. John Fetterman, D-Pa., expressed his support for the striking workers in a statement on Thursday.

“For two months now these workers have gotten up and walked the picket line, for two months these workers have not been paid, and for two months these workers have asked Wabtec to engage in good faith,” Fetterman said. “But for two months, Wabtec has continued to refuse to engage in good faith and give these workers what they deserve.”

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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.