Sanders floats Erie visit as strike continues at Wabtec plant
WASHINGTON, D.C. - U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) said he would consider visiting Erie to support and show solidarity for union members striking Wabtec, his latest statement regarding the tense labor contract dispute.
In an exclusive interview with Erie News Now Thursday, Sanders ramped up pressure on Wabtec executives to honor the previous contract United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE) 506 and 618 struck with General Electric Transportation while bargaining on a new deal continues. The senator is hopeful a deal -- either tentative or permanent -- can be reached. He doesn't have imminent plans to visit Erie, but he's not ruling out a trip either.
"Hopefully I don’t have to be there," Sanders said hoping a deal can be reached soon. "But if this strike drags on and my schedule allows it, yeah, I will go.”
Sanders, an independent senator representing Vermont, first began publicly calling for the company and Chief Executive Officer Raymond Belter to honor the union's contract with GE last week in a letter sent to Belter. Since then, Sanders, who has announced his candidacy for the Democratic nomination for president in the 2020 race, has posted a series of tweets on both his Senate and campaign Twitter feeds supporting the union and decrying Wabtec's demands.
"Hopefully Wabtec will come to the negotiating table and continue the contract that the United Electrical Workers has enjoyed," Sanders told Erie News Now Thursday.
Thursday was day three of the strike by the two labor unions, which combined represents more than 1,700 employees. Wabtec officially assumed control of the GE Transportation on Monday.
"Their struggle is not just in their plant," Sanders said. "Their struggle is the struggle for workers all over this country who are being beaten down by large corporations whose greed wants more from the workers. We've just got to stop that."
It's unclear when Sanders could visit Erie or exactly how long the strike will go. Sanders has scheduled his first 2020 campaign event in Brooklyn on Saturday.
On Wednesday, the Erie Regional Chamber and Growth Partnership issued a statement signaling concern of the strike and the image it portrays to companies considering moving or expanding to the region. Sanders pushed back and encouraged the Chamber to talk with Wabtec and promote leaders to reach a deal with the union.
"I would hope that the business community will talk to Wabtec and say 'sit down, negotiate seriously'," he said.
Sanders' support for Erie also has some 2020 undertones. Pennsylvania, considered a swing state in the presidential elections, favored President Donald Trump in 2016. He defeated Hillary Clinton by just 1.2 percent.
Sanders also kept things close across Northwestern Pennsylvania during the 2016 Democratic primaries, losing to Clinton in Erie County by 4.5 percent. He defeated Clinton in Crawford and Venango counties along with more than two dozen counties in Central Pennsylvania, most of which are largely considered conservative even by the Democratic Party's standards.
The Senator's relationship with UE 506 leaders goes beyond the picketing line. Union local President Scott Slawson was among the speakers at Sanders' Erie rally in April 2016 during the Senator's first run for president; Slawson also addressed the media at also at a rally in Pittsburgh one month before. Now, it's the Senator who is standing beside the union.
While Pennsylvania's federal lawmakers have either urged the two sides to reach a deal soon or have stayed out of the talks altogether, none have been as vocal as Sanders. And he doesn't plan on quieting down until a deal is reached.