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GE locomotive workers in Pennsylvania strike for first time in 50 years

Erie, Pennsylvania, has served as a backdrop for national political campaigns, including Donald Trump's in 2016 and more recently a pitch from Bernie Sanders. This week, however, the city is the scene of the first strike in 50 years by locomotive machinists at a long-time General Electric factory.

A day after GE completed the $11 billion sale of its century-old railroad division to Wabtec, about 1,700 factory workers are walking picket lines in Erie over mandatory overtime and lower wages for new hires.

The strike by two locals of the United Electrical, Radio & Machine Workers of America, or UE, began Tuesday after the latest round of talks broke down without a contract agreement, leaving union workers with the terms proposed by Wabtec.

The company's stipulations included a two-tier wage structure for new employees, mandatory overtime to meet customer demands and a requirement that workers take at least some vacation time during plant shutdowns. 

Union officials said Wabtec refused to agree to a 30-day extension of the existing contract. 

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"We are extremely disappointed that the company could not see its way to agree to continue the terms and conditions that we have worked under for decades," Scott Slawson, president of UE Local 506 said in a statement.

"We are grateful by the outpouring of support we have received from our friends, neighbors and community in Erie," Karlene Torrance, president of UE Local 618, added.

Bashing Wabtec

That support included a statement from Sanders. The U.S. senator and 2020 presidential candidate bashed Wabtec for its efforts to make workers labor for 12-hour shifts without overtime, slash wages by up to 38 percent for 460 recalled workers and new hires, and replace up to 20 percent of its workforce with low-paid, temporary workers.

"This is a company that is expected to generate over $8 billion in revenue this year," said Sanders, who noted that top executives at Wabtec and GE received millions in incentive and other payments during the merger. 

Wabtec defended its proposal in an email, calling it "generous" and "beyond anything in the region." 

Further, Greg Sbrocco, manager of Wabtec's manufacturing plants, defended the company's demand for "competitive wages for new hires" in an op-ed piece published Tuesday in the Erie Times News, calling it standard practice by U.S. manufacturers competing with rivals in low-wage countries like China and Mexico.

Labor discord started in 2017

While the plantwide strike is the first since 1969 by union members at what was then GE Transportation, the Erie factory has been a site of labor discord since GE transferred work from the plant to a nonunion factory in Texas in 2017, according to local media accounts.

"As soon as they broke ground [in Texas], they say that was the doomsday clock. That's when it started," Marty Light, a bartender at Irish Cousins bar across from the union hall of UE Local 506, told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in August that year.

Wabtec, or Westinghouse Air Brake Technologies, on Monday reported fourth-quarter sales of $1.12 billion, up 4 percent from the year-ago period. Factoring in GE Transportation's full-year results, the company said it expects sales of $9.2 billion in 2019.