No More Pension or Retiree Health Care for Union Workers at Erie Wabtec Plant
Striking UE Local 506 and Local 618 employees are taking turns walking the picket lines, then warming up with a meal in the union hall.
Over and over on the picket line they chant, "Who are we? UE. What do we want? A fair contract."
When bargaining starts again this Wednesday to try and reach that "fair contract," what won't be up for discussion is the three-legged retirement stool they had with GE, a pension, a voluntary pension and retiree health care plan. Wabtec just doesn't offer it.
Karleen Torrance, President of UE Local 618 said, "Losing that pension's a big hit, I'm young and I was hoping for it and it's gone."
So while union and company negotiators can't see eye to eye on Wabtec's push for a lower tier wage and mandatory overtime, union leaders like Scott Slawson, President of UE Local 506, believe they've already given up a lot by losing pensions and retiree health care. "Honestly that equates to about a four or five dollar an hour savings per person per hour from the company, so you're looking at roughly $14 to $20 million a year in savings," Slawson said.
In a statement, the company commented on the changes in benefits. "As part of the merger, Wabtec remained committed to ensuring employees kept their existing salary or wage rate and a best-in-class benefits package that includes a competitive 401(k) plan, comprehensive medical, dental and vision package, and accrued personal time off."
The workers who walked off the job one day after Wabtec closed on the merger deal are receiving a small benefit from their union, but for how long? "Funds are not endless," Slawson said, "but we do help those in need and we do provide strike pay for people on the line and people working here in the kitchen."
Although UE 618 has only seven members who do work in shipping and receiving, handle the parts catalog and some lab testing, they say their members face the same issues as the bulk of the strikers in UE 506 and they're worried. "We got our last paycheck on March first, I don't know what everybody's going to do," Torrance said.
In a statement, Wabtec said, "Under federal law, employees on strike do not receive any pay or benefits from the company. In order to continue health care coverage for themselves and their families, striking employees are required to pay the full cost of their health care benefits."
However union members tell us they've been informed that their Aetna health care package is in force for 60 days, until their COBRA (Consolidated Omnibus Reconciliation Act) package kicks in.
In the meantime, Community Health Net reached out to offer assistance to striking union members if they need it. "Community Health Net does offer a sliding fee scale and it's based upon your family size and income," said Craig Ulmer, CEO of Community Health Net said.
Ulmer also said, "The health and welfare of 1,700 individuals and families are in peril, as a Federally Qualified Health Center, we are particularly poised to assist by providing affordable healthcare services during this difficult time.”
In their statement, Wabtec officials expressed concern for the striking union members. "We are deeply concerned about the financial impact of this strike on our employees, their families and the Erie community. We have repeatedly expressed this to the union, and asked them to return to the bargaining table."
Even with all the risks facing the union members who are off the job, Slawson told Erie News Now he remains optimistic about the next round of bargaining. "With risk comes reward or failure, but we're not looking to fail and I don't think Wabtec's looking to fail," Slawson said, "I think that as we move along, we'll figure each other out and we'll get through this together."