It appeared last week that union leaders at GE Transportation’s plant in Lawrence Park might skip talks aimed at saving work there in light of how previous rounds went.
In the end, the leaders of the plant’s biggest union — Local 506 of the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America — decided they would engage in “decision bargaining” after all. In doing so, however, the union expressed little faith in the process or optimism about the prospects.
Still, UE 506’s decision was the right one for its members and the community. The stakes are too high to simply stop talking.
The process is all too familiar. GE announces its intention to transfer work out of Erie, which triggers a contractual provision for talks aimed at mitigating that decision.
The number of jobs in play this time, 575, doesn’t represent the biggest hit the Erie workforce has taken. Not even close. But the core of GE’s plan — to end nearly all locomotive production in Erie after more than 100 years, moving that work to its nonunion plant in Texas — has profound implications.
The locomotive business has always been subject to cycles of boom and bust. But if GE carries through with its plan, the benefits of any future boom would largely bypass Erie.
The stance taken by UE 506 is understandable by the lights of its leaders and members. For years they have been playing defense, which goes against the grain in a union whose ethos was formed in Erie’s, and America’s, industrial heyday.
And as business reporter Jim Martin details elsewhere in this newspaper, GE’s workers here are rightly proud of their skill levels and productivity. By some measures Erie ranks near the top of GE Transportation facilities in terms of efficiency, and certainly well above Texas.
But GE management maintains that when it measures the overall picture, including labor costs, fixed costs and production flexibility, the Erie plant doesn’t measure up. Richard Simpson, vice president of the company’s global supply chain, called it GE Transportation’s “least competitive site.”
The union last week released a study it commissioned to quantify the economic and civic damage done to the region by the cuts GE has made in recent years and plans by the end of 2018. While its conclusions are sobering, they’re hardly surprising.
And while GE has long been a good corporate citizen in this community, let’s be clear. Its impact on Erie is not the company’s primary consideration. Its overriding focus is how its operations here affect GE’s bottom line.
That’s the bottom line of the negotiations ahead. Looking at it any other way is wishful thinking.