I peer out my window and look for the orange glow of the burn barrels. The local locomotive plant is on strike and they are dug in. There are several camps of strikers, blocking all the entrances. It’s 15 degrees outside. The community is divided. Many people support our local union, UE506. Many people don’t support unions at all. They consider them elitist and blame all the lost jobs on union intractability. They worry the plant will close. We wouldn’t have any work safety laws, the 8-hour day, sick pay, or paid holidays if it wasn’t for the unions who struck for the rights of the people. The unions struck saying we deserve a living wage, for now and in the future. The union isn’t just working for the current laborers, they are working for the laborers of the future. The generations of workers to come who also deserves a living wage. We have what we have today because of the generations of workers before us who fought for us. My children don’t have the work in the coal mines or textile mills, they are free to be children. Unions gave us that, striking in the dead of winter gave us that.
I can’t help but think of the Lawrence, Massachusetts textile strike in the winter of 1912. People died for our rights, but they won. Our workplaces are safer now, young women no longer die at the average age of 26 in the loom rooms. Over a hundred years later, Lawrence Park, Pennsylvania is standing in their shadow. The wind is blustery and the local plant is no longer GE. The company that literally built the house I live in, 100 years ago, is gone. GE has been the cornerstone of my community for all that time. People have lived in the rowhouses and worked at the plant. My father worked there for over 30 years. My father in law worked there too. They both are retired now, living on pensions that were promised them and fought for them by their union.
GE used to be called Generous Electric. They built this town and planted trees and plotted out land for parks. They offered the best jobs and job training in town. When I was a kid in the 80s the plant was jam packed with cars, two huge parking lots that lie empty today. The main roads still get jammed at 3pm when the plant whistle blows. I can hear it from inside my house. I knew the strike was coming when those parking lots began to fill with cars. Nobody uses them anymore. There are less workers now than there used to be.
GE sold the company and the new company, Wabtec, is trying to sell them out. They want to bring back laid off workers at a lowered wage and cut the new-hire wages. The union thinks that a two-tier system of wages is a way to erode the working class wages in Erie. They are right. GE/Wabtec is one of the few remaining manufacturers in our rust-belt town. They build world-class locomotives that pull trains in countries all over the world. They are still one of the “good jobs” in town. My neighbors still work at the plant, and have given their adult lives to building trains. I see many who still walk to work everyday, despite the sleet or rain or snow. These people are happy to work hard and build the locomotives that make our world work. They deserve to have their contracts upheld.
I don’t know what is going to happen. The state of affairs at the plant is always to great interest to those of us who live across the street from it’s lumbering campus. The loss of jobs, when GE opened the new Texas plant, was palpable. The community suffered. The schools suffered. Now Wabtec is the new boss in town and they don’t like the Union contract. They want mandatory overtime and wages slashed for the next generation of workers. I might not work at GE, my husband doesn’t either, but the status of the plant is the status of my town. Will we have good, safe jobs at a fair wage? Will the worker of today be able to grow the families and children that will build the trains of the future? My father was able to support our family. That’s all we ask for.
I visited the men and women at the burn barrels. They were standing in the snow and the mud, trying to keep moving and stay warm and make a stand for the future of our community. I told them, “I support you.” They thanked me and one man told me, “I hope we aren’t shooting ourselves in the foot.” He just wanted to go back to work and do his part on the assembly line. Nobody wants to stand around in the snow for days and nights, waiting for what is right. They just want to go to work, in a safe place, with set hours, and fair wages for all the workers. Don’t we deserve that?
We wouldn’t have any job safety rights without the unions. No Monday thru Friday work week, no minimum wage, nothing. Workers would still be dying in factories for wages that can’t support their families. We live in a better world then we did in the past. Our workers have rights and protections. Our union isn’t going to sit by and let them take it all away.
The last time the GE plant struck was fifty years ago. It was also in the winter, in the dead cold of the snow belt, where in will rain and snow on you in the same day, for days on end. This isn’t California or Florida where March is spring and the days are sunny. We are clenched in the fist of winter, not yet willing to give up for a few more frigid weeks. Unless you’ve stood in the snow for hours in 15 degree weather, you can’t know what cold is. Great sheets of ice still float upon the lake. When the sun shines, it’s like a cruel joke. It’s blindingly bright but still freezing cold. The light sparkles off the snow like diamonds. The wind cuts like a knife.
I watch my neighbors drop off wood pallets and donuts and whatever else they can offer. The union hall is a beehive of energy, people cooking food and coming and going from the line. Sometimes there are children walking the line. Their parents and grandparents and maybe even great-grandparents worked at the plant. This plant has made billions of dollars of profit for GE and it will do the same for Wabtec. The strike is well-organized, just like the plant the workers run. We’re tough here in northwestern Pennsylvania. The weather makes you hard. It’s just another thing to endure. And endure we will.
Welcome to Lawrence Park, Wabtec.