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Pittsburgh-area Local Strikes Historic Electrical Equipment Plant


September 4, 2012

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As China seeks to make inroads into previously untargeted corners of the U.S. manufacturing sector, one would think that workers and managers at a legendary U.S. plant now supplying China’s nuclear industry would be living in an island of labor peace and prosperity.

Instead, owners of the Curtiss-Wright Electro-Mechanical Division at a former Westinghouse plant 15 miles up the Allegheny River from Pittsburgh, have forced 300 highly-skilled members of Harwick, Pa., Local 1914, who produce mammoth cooling pumps for nuclear reactors, out on strike.

Curtiss-Wright, the storied manufacturer of military engines and airplanes which purchased the plant in 2002, seeks wage concessions, a termination of the company’s defined benefit pension plan for new hires and take-aways in overtime pay and scheduling practices. The parties’ four-year agreement expired on August 18. They struck on August 24.

 Business Manager Dan Vandenburgh, a 25-year machinist/assembler, says the local tried to avoid a confrontation over a new contract to ensure that fabrication of several coolant pumps that had been delayed by design changes could be completed and delivered to China. He says:

We approached the company in January to try to initiate early negotiations to avoid the typical game of waiting until the last minute and going into panic mode. They stalled and didn’t start talking until five weeks before the deadline.

“Our members are incredibly unified,” says Vandenburgh, who was briefly arrested during picket duty. Senior union members have been surprised at the level of support coming from younger workers. Says Vandenburgh:

Many of our new workers left good jobs for a better job at Curtiss-Wright which carried with it a defined benefit pension plan. The company is proposing to deny the pensions to new hires starting in 2013. But all of our members understand that this could open the door to the company amending or modifying their own coverage in the future.

The local membership took a unanimous voice vote authorizing a strike on August 15. Contract negotiations dragged on past the deadline without management putting a wage offer on the table.

On August 23 members reaffirmed their voice vote by secret ballot. The next day, Curtiss-Wright asked for a 2 percent wage cut in the first year of a three-year contract followed by no increases in the next two years.

A separate contract covering 140 technical and clerical workers represented by the Association of Westinghouse Salaried Employees also expired on August 18. The association’s parent union has agreed to a contract extension.

Vandenburgh has called the company’s headquarters in New Jersey and asked for a resumption of talks. He expresses confidence that an agreement will be reached even as his members continue to display the pride and determination that has typified the work force at the last U.S. plant to carry the Westinghouse name.

Even as Westinghouse went into financial ruin in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the Electro-Mechanical Division thrived on its diet as a “sole-source” supplier for the nuclear Navy’s critical-function hardware. EMD had also carved a niche as a supplier of key equipment to the commercial nuclear power industry.

As the U.S. nuclear industry declined after the accident at Three Mile Island in 1978, EMD continued to supply spare parts and refurbished motors to existing nuclear plants.

EMD’s deal signed with China in 2007 will supply new equipment for AP1000 nuclear-generating stations. The plant is expected to supply similar equipment to recently permitted nuclear reactors under construction in the U.S.

A history of the plant on Local 1914’s Web site recounts how several multinational corporations had purchased the facility’s assets only to spin them off later on. The Web site states:

It may come as a surprise to some, but Curtiss-Wright corporate management is not very different from their EMD predecessors at Washington Group or Pepsico or the old Westinghouse Electric Corporation. When the road gets bumpy, top management strives first and foremost to maintain their privileged status and extract more value from the work force.¬† Ever-increasing profit is the mantra emanating from Parsippany, N.J. and Falls Church, Va. They are not implementing so-called “cost-cutting” measures because they aren’t making a profit. They are squeezing the workers because they want MORE profits.