For over a decade, ironworkers at the Erie Strayer Company in Pennsylvania have been pushing for a dental plan, but the company refuses to budge. It was taken off the table during negotiations for the past two five-year contracts, and this year, the company has once again refused the proposal.
How badly do these workers need dental?
“I’ve seen a worker welding with a swollen face and an ice pack. Another guy asked for my needle-nose pliers and pulled his own tooth in front of me,” says Glenn Ybanez, one of the Erie Strayer ironworkers who has now been on strike for ten weeks.
The Iron Workers Regional Shop Local 851 began negotiating a new contract with Erie Strayer in March of this year, and their prior contract expired in April. They want a 3 percent raise, which amounts to around 60 cents an hour — a modest proposal in a moment when inflation is running well above that rate — and dental, which would cost the company roughly another 3 percent.
But Erie Strayer has no interest in the needs of these workers, who make an average of $19.10 an hour to produce heavy-batch concrete-making machinery. Despite the high skill required for such labor, the union says they make less than the area median salary. Instead of accepting the workers’ proposals, the company offered a nickel-an-hour raise for the first year of the contract and no dental, provoking the strike.
“My wife and I are trying to figure out how we’ll come up with money to buy our kids Christmas gifts because the company says I’m not worth more than a nickel,” said Tim Donnell, one of the strikers. “Meanwhile, they’ve got no problem spending money on landscaping projects.”
“They were offering nothing in the first year, 5 cents in the second year, and 5 or 10 cents in the third year,” says Local 851 vice president and business representative Tracy Cutright. “The whole thing amounted to less than 90 cents over the five-year contract. We took a strike vote in September, and we went on strike on October 4.”
Cutright says workers also want a three-year, rather than five-year, contract, given that the latter locks them in for far too long, leaving them unable to enact much-needed changes. Further, the workers are pushing for a change in the company’s draconian attendance policy.
Workers currently get three days for bereavement, for example, but they must call into a call center to report their absence on every one of those days. Failure to do so is considered a no call, no show, and docks them attendance points. “I’ve had people in the emergency room have to call from the ICU,” says Cutright.
When the strike began, it encompassed forty-two workers. In the weeks since, several workers have quit or retired, and five have crossed the picket line, leaving twenty-eight ironworkers manning the 24/7 picket line (they say that if you’d like to support them, you can stop by the line at 1851 Rudolph Avenue in Erie or donate to their strike fund). Despite the length of the strike, the workers believe the company has only been able to hire, at most, two replacements, a shortage that workers attribute to the company’s low wages as well as widespread local support for labor, which makes the prospect of scabbing unacceptably shameful to potential hires.
“The company’s mantra early on was ‘We’re not interested in paying GE [now Wabtec] wages.’ Well, they’re not even in the same ballpark as GE,” says Cutright. The plant ran seven days a week through the pandemic, and did not lack for contracts. Erie Strayer also received a $1.2 million Paycheck Protection Program grant for payroll.
“I shouldn’t have to choose between spending time with my family or earning enough to make ends meet,” said David Miller, one of the strikers. “Working forty hours a week should be enough, but I can’t cover the mortgage and provide for my family on my regular salary. The company knows we can’t make ends meet on our regular salary. Instead of giving us a decent raise, they push us to work extra hours — sometimes seven days per week. It feels like economic blackmail.”
Three bargaining sessions have taken place since the strike began, but Erie Strayer remains intransigent.
“We bargained this week and they put across an offer of 25 cents a year for five years, no dental, no back pay, no signing bonus, no changes to the attendance policy,” says Cutright. The next bargaining session is scheduled for December 17. Community support remains steady, with locals stopping by to join the picket line or donate food and drinks. Other unions, too, have been reinforcing the line, and a rally last month saw local and state-level elected officials in attendance as well. As for the strikers, they’re prepared for the long haul.
“They’re in it all the way,” says Cutright. “It can be cold. It can be pouring down rain. They say, ‘We don’t care. We’re here.’”