GE Unions Vote 'Overwhelmingly' to Authorize Strike; Talks with Wabtec to Continue over Weekend with Mediator
GE union members voted overwhelmingly Saturday in favor of authorizing a strike as Wabtec and the union work through the weekend to negotiate a new contract agreement with the help of a mediator.
The strike authorization does not mean workers will walk off, but it gives union leadership the power to call a strike.
Union leadership did not disclose the final vote totals to the media but said union members "voted at near consensus."
This is the first time members of UE Local 506 have voted for a strike authorization in fifty years, the union said.
Both sides have agreed to meet this weekend with a mediator from the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Services, according to Wabtec.
In a statement released Saturday, Wabtec called the approval of the strike authorization "disappointing" and said the merger offers an opportunity to position the plant and UE membership for success:
“We have been negotiating in good faith with the UE on proposed terms and conditions that would benefit the plant, its membership and the Erie community. We have been open to candid conversations to explore acceptable solutions around scheduled overtime, but the UE is unwilling to discuss. This strike authorization is counterproductive in our discussions to reach an agreement that positions the site for greater flexibility and potential growth."
If an agreement is not reached by Monday, the closing date of the merger, Wabtec indicated that UE 506 members will become employees of Wabtec under a proposed initial terms and conditions, according to the union. The union said it remains available for continued negotiations and will not close off communications with Wabtec due to Saturday's vote.
“Our goals are to work hand-in-hand with the company to ensure our members have a healthy and safe work environment; that our wages are commensurate with our skill levels; that the company is successful and grows, and to continue to contribute to the local economy in a productive manner,” said Scott Slawson, president of UE 506.
UE 506 said it wants the company honor its existing collective bargaining agreement until both sides can reach a deal on a new contract.
"We hoped that our goals would be achieved through an extension of the existing contract that we requested in November. Unfortunately, Wabtec rejected that offer, precipitating negotiations that thus far have not progressed very far beyond our opening discussions."
The union believes it would benefit both parties, according to a statement:
"If accepted, it would have provided a healthy timeframe for the new labor/management relationship to be established, to educate Wabtec on the complexity of the Lawrence Park site, and to work hand-in-hand to eventually negotiate an agreement that supports Wabtec’s new business."
UE 506 represents about 1,700 employees at GE, with Local 618 adding a few more. In recent days, as the talks were not progressing, the union expressed concerns about giving up protections for workers. Sources close to the talks also say the union bargaining team is concerned about what they say is a lower tier wage proposed by Wabtec for not only new hires but for laid-off union workers who may be called back. Slawson has said there are as many as 450 workers available for call back.
UE said the skilled work at GE Transportation's flagship plant in Erie has helped the company consistently earn profits of more than 16 percent for the last five years.
In its statement Wednesday, Wabtec said the company is interested in improving manufacturing operations at the Erie plant. The company has proposed certain work rules changes that they say are in line with the terms that have been in use for years by Wabtec at its facility in Wilmerding, Pa., where employees are also represented by the UE.
The company said all current GE workers would be able to earn their existing salary or wage rate; receive a best-in-class wage and benefits package that maintains an above-market legacy average wage rate of $35 per hour; a competitive 401K plan, comprehensive medical, dental and vision package, and accrued personal time off comparable to what the union members already have.
Wabtec also said, "Erie is GE Transportation’s least competitive site and it has been for years. GE and Wabtec been very transparent with the UE on the need to get cost competitive."
The current negotiations between UE 506 and Wabtec began Jan. 29, and there have been seven negotiating sessions since then, according to the union on Saturday. Negotiations will continue through the weekend.
Presidential candidate and U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders sent a letter Thursday to Wabtec's CEO Raymond Betler in support of the GE unions as both sides work to negotiate a new contract.
Union workers stood together outside the GE Transportation plant’s three main entrances for roughly two hours Friday for a "practice picket" to send a message to Wabtec, according to Matt McCracken, executive board member fo UE 506.
Wabtec is set to take over GE Transportation's operations on Monday.
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- UE 506 and Wabtec Plan More Contract Talks This Week