Why Your Words Hurt, Mr. Grunke
For a moment in the morning he wakes up, and everything is fine. Then he opens his eyes and remembers the nightmare.
He’s on strike.
More thoughts run through him. How long will this last? What about the mortgage? Should he pull his son out of hockey? His daughter from dance? Where is gas cheapest? Will his first-grader come home from school upset, again?
Because they do, the little ones overhear people talking about the strike. They come home and ask, “Will we run out of money?” “Can I still go to my school?” And their parents pick them up, smile, and assure them everything will be all right. They hope they aren’t lying.
An Impression on Wabtec and other business Interests
The Wabtec employees, old and young alike, want jobs. They want living-wage jobs. They want to make a great impression on business interests so their children have jobs. Their hopes for this city are the same as economic leaders’ hopes.
But they are not willing to step back in time and relinquish total control of their lives to an employer.
In order to assure they do not do that, UE506 refused to ratify a contract with flexible schedules and mandatory overtime stipulations.
A historic point of view
Dr. John Olszowka, Ph.D., a professor at Mercyhurst’s Thomas B. Hagen Department of History teaches the history of labor.
“From a historic standpoint, the issue of an eight-hour work day was one that was a central goal and objective that drove American workers since the advent of the industrial revolution in the 19th century. There’s an interesting historic (autobiographical) novel that speaks to the mental fatigue, physical exhaustion, and coercive force of the excessive work hours that once existed in the United States.”
The book Dr. Olszowka uses in his class, Out of the Furnace by Thomas Bell, discusses the old steel industry when employees were forced to juggle shifts while working twelve-hour days seven days a week. On the last day of the week, which they called “The Turn,” their shift changed and employees were forced to work twenty-four hours.
Back then, unions didn’t exist. Steel workers received no overtime pay.
“Conditions were dangerous, and unsafe to say the least—injuries and death were not uncommon.” Dr. Olszowka said. “These conditions were permissible because employers looked at workers as little more than interchangeable parts.”
The bad conditions inspired workers to ask for standard eight-hour days.
“It was about recapturing their dignity, fighting for their lives and safety,” Dr. Olszowka said.
Like strikers and unions today, the steel workers met with criticism.
“At the time, to outsiders, these efforts to change the work condition were seen as a threat. Critics complained it would hurt the companies, financially. They would want to leave the region,” Dr. Olszowka said. “One of the constant comments I still hear is how the labor unions destroyed the American Steel industry with their “excessive demands”—which is completely false. It was about having a degree of control over their lives; and raising their lives to a quality worth living.”
UE506 and Wabtec employees feel accepting flexible schedules and mandatory overtime is relinquishing too much control back into the hands of an employer.
The Mandatory Overtime Stipulation
Embedded in the proposed Wabtec contract is the following reference to mandatory overtime:
- B.3. Overtime Assignments. Employees will be required to work overtime including, but not limited to, work performed before and after shifts, on weekends, and on holidays, as necessary depending on the needs of the business.
In this country, if you refuse overtime, you can be fired. As long as your employer pays you in accordance with the law, there is no limit on the amount of overtime they can require.
Sign on that dotted line, and UE506 ratifies a contract where an employer has absolute power over the amount of time an employee must spend at work. Family wedding? Child’s recital? Soccer game? Vacation? Family reunion? Unless those events land during shutdown, there is no assurance they’ll be able to go.
Let me restate Dr. Olszowka’s words. “It was about having a degree of control over their lives; and raising their lives to a quality worth living.”
What can we do?
Right now, seventeen hundred families are in the fight of their lives. They will do anything to keep these jobs in Erie—anything except go back in time.
If you do not understand their plight, then at least be kind.
Political leaders, your words are powerful. Walking that cold Wabtec picket line are first, second, and third generation GE workers. Please don’t accuse their fight for personal dignity as making a bad impression on business interests. They have a vested interest in this city. Unlike you, Mr. Grunke, most of them grew up here. They love Erie. They want their kids to stay here, and they are desperate to make a good impression on business interests.
They are hard-working people who will work overtime when they can to make Wabtec successful, but they are not going to sign their lives away.
They are not interchangeable parts.
Cyndie Zahner has lived in the Erie community her entire life. She is a retired grant writer/administrator, and now writes fiction novels. Her husband, brother-in-law, and nephew-in-law work at Wabtec. Her brother is a GE retiree. Her father-in-law, Edwin Zahner, was a proud GE employee for thirty-seven years. Follow Cyndie on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, Goodreads, BookBub, LinkedIn and purchase her books on Amazon. See her BookCircle Online interview at here.