Last week, a large group of striking factory workers, United Electrical Workers union officials and community members gathered in the freezing temperatures in Wilmerding, Pa., across the railroad tracks from the Wabtec Corporation, holding signs denouncing corporate greed and announcing support for the union. As a train passed by, it blew its whistle repeatedly in support of the protest.
Strikes have made a resurgence in the past year, with more workers striking in 2018 than at any time in over 30 years. But most of these workers were teachers and health care professionals. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which collects data on all work stoppages involving 1,000 or more workers, the strike in Wilmerding, near Pittsburgh, was the largest manufacturing strike of the Trump presidency. It was in support of 1,700 union workers at a 100-year-old locomotive factory in Erie who went on strike a week earlier, when Wabtec acquired the factory from General Electric and immediately demanded severe concessions from the workers. Bringing back “good paying” manufacturing jobs in the Midwest was a linchpin of President Trump’s 2016 campaign and is already a talking point of the 2020 election.
When it comes to young people, manufacturers already have to overcome an outdated idea that today’s factories, which are actually high-tech, remain dirty and dangerous. It’s hard to imagine industrial companies recruiting a new generation into manufacturing at the pedestrian and downward-trending pay sought by Wabtec. It’s a formula that won’t work much longer. The unions are offering Wabtec and the rest of manufacturing a different and more promising path: Rebuild the wage premium in manufacturing as a way to retain and attract the next generation of skilled manufacturing workers.