Erie’s errant workers hold the line

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On July 3, 1941, the Bridge, Structural, and Ornamental Iron Workers Union won a labor council election with workers at Erie Steel Construction in Erie, Pennsylvania. industries were growing rapidly as the economy rebounded from the Great Depression and defense contracts increased due to the war. More than 4,000 strikes took place across the country during this year (before Pearl Harbor dragged the United States into war and many accepted “no strike” pledges). This involved more than 2 million workers demanding fair wages for their work, more reasonable hours and safer working conditions. In Pennsylvania alone, nearly 550 strikes took place (the second most of any state in 1941), involving nearly half a million workers.

United States Department of Labor, 1941

Strikes like these continue to this day. But more on that later.

“This trend reflects the attempt by workers to keep their wages in line with the rising cost of living and to get their share of the growing profits from the rapidly expanding defense program,” a Labor Department report concluded.

After the vote, unionized steelworkers at Erie Steel Construction immediately began negotiations with the company for an increase of 10 cents an hour. A month went by with little progress, so all 65 workers voted in favor of the strike, led by union president Alex Bolash and union representative William McCool. A stalemate continued throughout the following week. A federal labor conciliator from Cleveland was quickly called in. It took another week, but on August 15, workers and company officials came to an agreement and the strike ended.

United States Department of Labor, 1941

Over the next decade, the workers of Erie Steel Construction continued to demonstrate their unified strength. In March 1946, during the wave of massive post-war strikes (the largest strikes in US history), 75 ironworkers went on strike again. Union president Cyril Bauer told the Erie Daily Times their contract expired last August and the two sides could not agree on new terms. The workers demanded an increase of 18.5 cents an hour, a five-day, 40-hour workweek and half-time pay for overtime and Saturdays, as well as double the rate for Sundays. and holidays. The company counter-offered with an increase of 10 cents an hour. This was quickly rejected. After two more days of intense negotiations, an agreement was reached: 18 cents an hour, a 40-hour work week, and overtime on Saturdays.

This wave of strikes led to the passage of the Taft-Hartley Act by Congress in 1947, overturning President Harry Truman’s veto. This law, advocated by corporate lobbies, weakened the power of unions and amended much of the 1935 New Deal national labor and labor relations law of 1935, which had increased unionization by the workforce from 10 to 25%.

This did not deter workers at Erie Steel Construction, however. On February 22, 1950, they voted to strike again, having worked without a contract since the previous July.

United States Department of Labor, 1941

“The strike has been a long time coming but now we are going to make sure it is a good strike,” Cyril Bauer told the Erie Daily Times, as he and the workers “picked one of the worst days of winter “. were “huddled around a huge fire” on their picket line. The newspaper described it as another “bitter chapter in the turbulent labor relations at the factory.” Soon, other unions in Erie began pouring money into their strike fund, encouraging strikers not to accept an unacceptable contract.

The business at this point was overseen by Hamilton Strayer, the son of GH Strayer who had founded the business in 1912. After five days of little progress between the opposing parties, a state mediator was engaged. The main conflicts concerned paid leave. , insurance and pension plans, and a retention clause, which required workers to remain in the union for the duration of the contract.

After a few more days in a stalemate, the union filed unfair practice charges with the National Labor Relations Board against the company. Hamilton Strayer responded by filing unfair practice charges against the union, saying the union failed to give enough notice to government ombudsmen before going on strike, as required by the Taft-Hartley Act. Over the weeks, the rhetoric reported in the Erie Daily Times has become uglier. Strayer accused the union of refusing to negotiate, while the newspaper noted the two sides couldn’t even agree on something as simple as meeting dates. A high-ranking union official called the strike a “showdown” which would be “a real fight to the end”.

Two days later, in a nine-hour negotiating session that lasted all night, the stalemate appeared to be resolved. Two more days passed before the strike officially ended after a seven-hour roller coaster session in which the two sides “came to a full agreement, then a complete disagreement, and finally signed a new contract.” Workers were given six paid holidays, an agreed insurance policy for sick and hospital leave, and a revised membership retention agreement that included a one-year safeguard clause. The workers unanimously accepted the contract which they said “had teeth”. Strayer said he was glad it was over and was “happy with the terms” as well.

The workers found themselves at another stalemate with the company two years later. On April 25, 1952, they authorized a strike again, demanding better working conditions as well as an 18-cent-an-hour wage increase, better benefits and more vacation. This strike will last more than two months and will require a federal mediator outside of Pittsburgh before ending on July 8.

The company changed its name from Erie Steel Construction to Erie Strayer Company in 1954. The change was due to the shift in production from steelmaking to manufacturing concrete batching equipment. The following decades were not without struggles and turmoil at Erie Strayer (a strike in the early 1970s lasted four months), but thanks to a generation of factory workers who organized and sacrificed themselves, the company could now honestly advertise positions in the newspaper as having “good salary, hospitalization, [and a] vacation project. “

From yesterday to today

In the decades since these union struggles, union membership across the United States has declined dramatically as workers’ power eroded. The Taft-Hartley Act still remains in force. Yet labor strikes are back this year as unified workers see leverage in a recovering economy that simultaneously experiences a labor shortage of workers leaving private sector jobs. by Cornell Follow-up of union action identified more than 300 strikes across the United States this year along with hundreds of other worker-focused protests.

In Erie, the workers of Erie Strayer remain unionized and do not give up. In April 2021, their five-year employment contract expired. On October 4, these current members of Ironworkers Local 851 went on strike again to protest what they described as “insulting business proposals that appeared to be designed to derail negotiations.” It’s particularly insulting, they think, given that they’ve been working through the entire pandemic seven days a week without a single stoppage.

The union proposed a three-year contract that would increase wages by 60 cents an hour the first year, then 50 cents an hour the next two years as well as retroactive pay from the expiration of the contract. , a signing bonus, fair participation in policy and dental insurance. Erie Strayer responded with a five-year contract offering increases of 5 to 15 cents each year – less than the 18 cents reached in 1946.

The community of Erie and other local unions stepped up support for the strikers, providing meals and care packages, helping to cover health costs, raising awareness and participating in a march along West 26th Street.

“This is what it is about, it’s a family, it’s a community”, Terry Baker, electrician of the IBEW Local Union 56, said YourErie while walking. “We should be here together and we should help our community stay together and do what we can for them.”

The strike at Erie Strayer even caught the attention of Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine and Audioslave, who featured it in a list of ongoing strikes in her music video for her pro-work song “Hold the Line” and that he and singer Grandson recently starred on The Tonight Show.

“No one said it would be easy. No one said it would be okay,” sings Grandson on the track. “But to get to where we’re going, brother, you’ve got to hold the line.”

Negotiations between the union and Erie Strayer continue in December. In the meantime, the workers plan to hold the line.

You can read more about what Erie Strayer workers are asking at www.eriestrayerstrike.com.

To contribute to Erie Strayer workers, visit gofundme.com/f/ironwork-support.


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