Entirely Justified?

In their own minds, CEOs and economic development leaders in Erie, Pennsylvania are entirely justified. They truly believe Wabtec workers should agree to two-tiered wages, mandatory overtime, reduced vacation, and flexible scheduling for the good of the company—for the good of the city.

But Erie’s little labor dispute is about more than them. It is about more than us—and I mean us in the sense that I am standing on the side of the union. (And I haven’t always done that in the past.)

If you think this is simply a labor dispute in our little town, you are dead wrong. This is about our country’s unions, the protection they provide to the middle class, whether they can continue to be an effective bargaining tool in the future, AND it is about middle-class America, itself.

Every political eye in the country knows us. And whether you know it or not, Erie is making a mark in history.

The political battle

With the number of electoral candidates soaring, you can be sure each and every presidential contender is watching the little Wabtec/UE Local 506 union negotiations. These people want our votes. They want the votes of millions of Americans like us.

But if they want mine, forget political parties and talk to me about the classes. We have rich, middle-class, and poor Republicans and Democrats. What will they do for the middle class?

Every politician says they will help us because they know if they don’t say that, they don’t have a chance in hell of being elected. So do they support organized labor? Yes or no.

There is good and bad to everything. You do not have to support union members who disparage workers entering a plant they strike against. You don’t even have to support strikes that halt production if you feel there are better bargaining tools. But you should  at least support and acknowledge that organized labor helped grow the middle class in the past and without it in the future, the middle class is sure to erode.

Before unions? Middle class workers had less fringe benefits (some had none) and less safety precautions. They worked longer hours for less pay.  Many fell prey to mandatory overtime and flexible schedules.

People say the workers at Wabtec WANT overtime, so what’s the big deal? Agreeing to work overtime to finish a product for your employer is NOT the same as being forced to do it. There is a huge difference.

Mandatory overtime

Gives an employer power over your life.

Flexible scheduling

Gives an employer power over your life.

Two-tier wages

Pushes future Erie middle-class workers down a few rungs of the ladder toward the working poor. Is that better than losing jobs?

I truly don’t know the answer to that.

That is the great debate in our little town. Residents volley opinions on whether or not we should agree to reducing $35 an hour jobs to $20.

But why is no one pointing a finger at top management?

Community support

While I understand opinions across the country vary, I find it hard to understand the jealousy of many middle-class workers within my own community—both blue- and white-collar workers AND Republicans and Democrats.

Nancy L. Hogan Ph.D., a professor at Ferris State University in Michigan, said it best: “The economy is driven by consumers…you and me…but the rhetoric that corporations are ‘job creators’ brainwashes everyone to believing we have to take a pay cut to ‘keep the jobs.’ Show me one CEO who has taken a pay cut to help either the workers or the company. Higher wages from unions raise the wages of non-unions. But the people side with those making 300 +% more than the workers, rather than workers who are a reflection of themselves.”

Dr. Hogan is correct. Middle-class workers are siding with the elite rather than those who are a reflection of themselves.

It never ceases to amaze me how people will defend immigrant’s rights, the rights of the unborn, and the rights of the protected classes, and yet ignore the basic rights of the middle-class worker.

Why aren’t we defending the middle class?

We should stop fighting amongst ourselves, rise up, and insist the rich make concessions.

Why don’t we? The media may be fueling the fire. Read UE Local 506 president Scott Slawson’s words in today’s Erie paper: https://www.goerie.com/news/20190502/wabtec-bosses-future-of-erie-plant-rides-on-2-tier-wages#.

Read Daniel Moore’s March 6, 2019 article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Referring to Erie, Moore wrote, “Over the last week, the company and the union escalated the strike’s public relations battle to win support from residents of Lawrence Park, an Erie County town of a few thousand people founded by GE Transportation in 1910.” (https://www.post-gazette.com/business/career-workplace/2019/03/06/Wabtec-GE-union-workers-contract-talks-labor-strike-manufacturing/stories/201903050026)

CEOs and Political leaders are working the media, including social media, to win support for themselves against organized labor.

Is organized labor bad?

For the middle class? No; absolutely not.

For wealthy owners of company’s and political leaders who receive campaign contributions from rich CEOs? (Take a look at past videos of election night celebrations for current political leaders. You may see a few familiar faces.) Absolutely.

Entirely justified?

Is their stand that Erie’s skilled labor should accept concessions justified?

I don’t know what is right or wrong anymore. But I do know one thing. Without labor unions of the past, our middle class would not be as strong as it is today. And in the future? I worry if the rich influence political leaders to break down organized labor, the middle class will erode.

You may not believe this but I often pray about my dumb little blog, and I don’t believe in coincidences.

This morning I finished reading The Great Gatsby. “Entirely justified” comes from its ending: “what he had done was, to him, entirely justified.”

The book is about social tragedy, defiled dreams of Americans, and the total disregard of the rich. The main characters, Tom and Daisy, are figurative. To me they represent the powerful and the wealthy: “They were careless people, Tom and Daisy—they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together and let other people clean up the mess they had made….”

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Cyndie “CJ” 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, Mike Filutze, is a GE retiree. Her father-in-law, Edwin Zahner, was a proud GE employee for thirty-seven years. Follow Cyndie on InstagramTwitterFacebookGoodreadsBookBubLinkedIn and purchase her books on Amazon. See her BookCircle Online interview here.

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When Words Hurt

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:

  1. 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.

 

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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 InstagramTwitterFacebookGoodreads, BookBub, LinkedIn and purchase her books on Amazon. See her BookCircle Online interview at here.

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