Watch: How a union contract started in a garage during Covid
You don’t get what you don’t fight for.
The Holler and PayDay Report hit the road to Erie, PA on Saturday where Ironworkers from Local 851 celebrated a new agreement at Erie Strayer just in time for the holidays. Video and full story from PayDay report reprinted below.
John Russell: After 75 days on strike, Ironworkers at Local 851 in Erie, PA won important benefits and are back to work at Erie Strayer. Here’s Tracy Cutright, vice president of Local 851, with the story of how thousands of dollars of benefits started with a pen and paper in someone’s garage and a lot of people ready to fight for themselves.
Tracy, can you tell us the whole story from like when it started to where we are right now?
Tracy Cutright: It's actually a good story. First thing the guys started talking about is this contract and they said, well, we want to work on it. And so we started working on it during COVID in 2020. Couldn't get a room up here at Erie, so we're in Frank Lockwood's garage.
Mike Elk: It was safe? It was like outdoorsy?
Tracy Cutright: Well, it was in a garage and but we couldn't get room. You know what I mean? You couldn't, we couldn't get the VFW it was shut down. We couldn't get anything. So we did the garage. And so we're in Frank's garage, the doors open, it's summertime, it's August, you know, of 2020. And
John Russell: That's where this new contract started?
Tracy Cutright: Yeah. Prior to that, the committee did exactly what they were supposed to do - come up with the ideas, what they didn't get last time, put it all together. And then I came in with the leadership and we sat there and we went through it line by line. What this stuff is, and I told them some of this stuff, we ain't gettin', ever. Some of this stuff, you know, it's throw away kind of, you know, bargaining stuff. And so we did that, and we had a laundry list going in and and when it got too cold for the garage, we moved to Frank's basement. I'm on top of his pool table writing notes and stuff, you know? These guys I mean, they were all in from the beginning.
Full Reprint of PayDay Report Story
BY: MIKE ELK DECEMBER 20, 2021
ERIE, PA – As Christmas music blared over VFW Local 470’s loudspeaker, members of Ironworkers Local 851 hugged and high-fived. Family members nearby ate holiday cookies and celebrated the great news.
The night before the Erie Strayer ironworker’s union reached a tentative agreement that ended their 75 day-long strike.
The tentative agreement, which covers 40 unionized workers at the plant, gives workers a 3% wage increase and a dental plan for the first time in company history that could potentially save families thousands of dollars a year on out-of-pocket medical expenditures. The agreement, however, contained no concessions on health care or union rights.
Most importantly, workers felt that the strike gave the union a new sense of respect in the workplace, where before the union struggled with management at the small family-owned company.
“This has been absolutely great. I feel ecstatic about this one because I was honestly afraid that they were going to bust the union by any means necessary,” said third-generation Strayer worker Steven Carpenter. “They heard our voice and can’t simply say that we are expendable.”
The inclusion of the dental plan came as a shock to many.
“We were told and bullied before the strike that we would never get this, it never will happen. This company has never had dental,” said Strayer Worker and negotiating committee chair Glen Ybanez. “And, you know, with their proposal yesterday, that was the first thing they laid out on the table was the dental. And with the wages, it kind of stunned and shocked us for a second there.”
Workers say that repeated picketing of the suburban home of Erie Strayer CEO Kyle Strayer over the last two weeks led the company to offer the dental plan, which they thought they would never get.
“We definitely saw some movement after we picketed the owner’s house,” said Carpenter.
The strikes came after nearly a year and a half of planning that began in the garage of local union supporter Frank Lockwood during the summer of 2020 when ironworkers were unable to find a place to meet. Throughout the process, many of the ironworkers formed a new bond of solidarity.
Workers at first doubted if they would get much support from the international union of the ironworkers but were floored when the international invested heavily in their strike. The Erie labor community also showed up and donated heavily to the workers’ strike fund. (See our story “As Winter Hits, Ironworkers Escalate Key Erie Labor Fight.”)
Unlike other strikes where workers are only required to work one or two picket line shifts a week, all the Erie Strayer workers were on the picket line nearly every day.
“This bonded the crew a lot closer together,” said Ybanez. “When you got one guy starting to give up another guy picked him up and said let’s keep going. If one guy was weak, the other four picked him up. I never gave up, I kept on fighting.”
Erie Strayer ironworkers say that the lesson of their strike for other workers is clear.
“Don’t give up,” said Carpenter. “Figure out a way to break through that wall and make sure you are seeking outside support when you don’t think you have that kind of strength because together you are absolutely strong enough because there’s no stopping anyone when you stick together and actually work towards the same goal.”
As the Christmas party winded down and family members left with bags of Christmas cookies, lead bargaining committee member Ybanez yelled to another member.
“Make sure you use that dental plan and make sure to take your kids to the dentist because we won that!”