More than 100 workers at Wabtec have been on strike since Oct. 27 — protesting low wages, misclassification of jobs and safety — and say they aren’t likely to stop anytime soon.
The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 1464 represents 118 members in the Kansas City facility, which remanufactures products for locomotives, and freight and passenger transit cars.
For nearly three weeks, the union has been picketing outside of the plant in four-hour shifts from 4:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. — keeping fires going to stay warm in the bitter weather. And as the holiday season approaches, some are worried about how they’ll provide a Thanksgiving meal for their families.
“We feel like we need to stand up for what we believe in,” said Robert Watson, a quality technician at Wabtec and one of the captains of the strike. “And we actually believe in this. We believe we deserve more.”
Wabtec did not respond to KCUR’s specific questions about the union’s complaints.
“We continue to work with the Union to try to resolve this situation,” a company representative said in a statement. “Wabtec values its employees and the communities where we do business. We are committed to staying competitive in the marketplace providing highly desirable jobs, career opportunities and exceptional customer service.”
Complaints over inequitable pay
Pittsburgh-based Wabtec Corporation was formed from a merger of Westinghouse Air Brake Company and Motive Power in 1999. When Wabtec acquired General Electric Transportation in 2018, it took over the Kansas City facility located at 10707 N. Pomona Avenue near the airport.
Union members there are primarily striking over the misclassification of jobs that they say results in lower wages.
Plant employees work specialized roles relating to heavy industrial repair and replacement of locomotive motors. But the company used wage comparisons for assemblers, who are paid less.
The company also has a two-tier pay system with a “legacy” wage, put in place in 2008, and a lower “competitive” wage, implemented in 2016. While legacy employees make a base pay of about $22.50 an hour, those on the lower tier report earning less than $20.50 — the company’s current hiring rate.
IBEW 1464 wants to get rid of that tiered system so all workers have the same pay scales.
The union began negotiations with the company in January of this year. But contract negotiations stalled soon after, and the two groups decided to wait until September to resume talks.
Wabtec’s last offer provided one-time general wage increases and a more equitable Saturday overtime rotation. But it kept the job classifications and two-tier pay scale intact.
“It’s not like we’re asking for $10, $12 an hour in increases,” said Scott Taylor, a quality specialist and shop trainer who’s been with the company for 14 years. “We wanted a reasonable increase over the span of three years, and they didn’t even come back with a fourth of what we were requesting. Some would say that’s insulting. I just think it’s greed in my opinion.”
Ultimately, an overwhelming majority of the union rejected Wabtec’s proposed contract. On Oct. 25, Wabtec claimed an impasse and halted negotiations — and the union members went on strike two days later.
“Wabtec is disappointed the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) Local Union 1464 has engaged in a strike, especially since the Union leaders previously reached a tentative agreement on a new three-year contract on September 20, 2022,” Tim Bader, a representative with Wabtec, said in a statement. “Despite this action, the site remains open for business and operational with the support of hourly, salaried and contract employees.”
The union’s decision didn’t come easily. Many of those on the picket line have been with the company for more than a decade — before Wabtec took over the facility.
“That’s the only leverage we have,” Watson said. “They have the job, they have the employment, they have the pay scale. The only thing we have is to strike.”
As the picket line continues, Wabtec has contracted temporary employees to work.
According to the striking workers, those non-union contractors are coming in with less experience but, in some cases, are making over $10 per hour more than the proposed salary base that Wabtec had rejected.
And since this is an economic strike, workers may not be allowed back to work if the company hires permanent replacements.
“Our livelihoods are at stake, whether we’re out here striking or in there, with the economy the way it is right now,” said Taylor. “It’s a struggle for anybody that makes $25 an hour, let alone less than that. They imply that they’re the victim behind this. They’re not a victim, they’re a multi-billion dollar corporation.”
A long strike grows longer
Chris Kane, business manager for IBEW 1464, has filed multiple unfair labor practice charges against Wabtec, alleging it treats unionized and non-unionized workers differently.
“They imposed a unilateral change that went against our contract while we still had a contract in place, completely against one of our suggestions that they said they couldn’t do in negotiations,” Kane said. “They changed the bid procedure one day before we went on strike, while we still had a current contract with them.”
Some workers have also claimed the company attempted to entice them to cross the picket line — another unfair labor practice. Three Wabtec employees allege they received calls from the company’s HR urging them to rejoin the facility’s workforce without any fines or retaliatory measures.
James Carter, a team lead who works on DC traction motors, celebrated his 14th anniversary at the facility while on strike. He said an HR representative from Wabtec asked him directly if “there was any reason why you wouldn’t feel comfortable crossing the picket line.”
If the National Labor Relations Board upholds the union’s complaint and finds that Wabtec committed unfair labor practices, the strikers must be immediately reinstated once the strike ends.
Despite the lack of momentum, Kane is hopeful about the outcome of the strike. Strikers at the Kansas City facility are relatively small in number — more than 1,700 Wabtec workers in the company’s Pennsylvania headquarters went on strike in 2019 — but Kane thinks the company is feeling the pressure.
The Kansas City facility is currently only running one shift per day due to a lack of workers.
“I think it has actually been going surprisingly well,” Kane said. “I didn’t know how this was gonna go. I’ve seen a wonderful show of support, of brotherhood and unity. I’ve had more people stand together outside than I thought we would have. I’ve had a lot of guys that have a lot of seniority stand up for the new guys. And that’s very refreshing.”
Union members are already feeling the pinch, though. At a strike meeting Nov. 14, workers discussed what to do after more than two weeks with no pay or benefits.
“Whatever your decision is, don’t cross that line and go back in there,” one member at said. “If you got to work, just don’t work in here. I’m telling you guys, it’ll be the worst thing for us.”
Several striking workers have already returned, however.
Those still on the picket line traded ideas for part-time jobs to take up in the meantime, where to get food assistance and health care, and how to proceed during the holidays. Kane even offered to host the workers and their families for a Thanksgiving dinner.
“They’re hurting too,” Watson said. “That’s what I keep telling our people. We’re hurting, but they’re hurting too. We’re losing money, they’re losing more money.”