Pennsylvania won’t hold its primaries in the 2020 presidential race until well after the first few nominating states help narrow the field, but the Keystone State is already getting attention from at least one candidate for the Democratic nomination, hoping to show he can win voters who supported Donald Trump in 2016.
Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders is pointing to an $11.1 billion merger between GE Transportation and railroad equipment manufacturer Wabtec Corp. in Erie as evidence of workers losing benefits even as corporate executives reap a windfall.
A day after Wabtec closed on the deal, workers at the locomotive plant went on strike Tuesday morning amid a labor dispute.
“As soon as [Wabtec] came in … they said to their workers, we’re going to have mandatory overtime, we’re going to change the scheduling, and we’re going to substantially lower the pay for new workers,” Sanders said during a CNN town-hall forum in Washington on Monday night.
“And meanwhile, as a result of the merger, they gave tens and tens of millions of dollars in bonuses to CEOs and high-ranking officials,” Sanders continued. “That is what’s going on all over this country. Large corporations cut health care and benefits for their workers, and the CEOs make 300 times what their workers make.”
“You go to Trump Country,” Sanders said, “and ask people there whether they think that makes sense.”
Erie was one of three counties in Pennsylvania that voted for Barack Obama in 2012 and Trump in 2016, and helped make Trump the first Republican presidential candidate to carry the state since 1988.
Erie’s political turnabout was fueled in no small part by white working-class voters — such as many of those at the longtime GE plant.
But last year, Democrats performed well in Erie, with Gov. Tom Wolf, Sen. Bob Casey, and the party’s congressional candidate each winning the county by around 20 percentage points.
A majority of Democratic voters want to nominate a presidential candidate in 2020 who would be a “stronger” contender against Trump, even if they don’t agree with the candidate on most issues, according to a Feb. 4 Monmouth University poll. Just 33 percent prefer a candidate they agree with but who would have a hard time beating Trump, the poll found.
That may present a challenge to Sanders, a self-described democratic socialist who ran an insurgent outsider campaign against Hillary Clinton in 2016. But the senator’s attention to the plight of workers in Erie shows how he thinks his class-based critique of the economy and corporate America could appeal to Rust Belt voters who went for Trump.
The unions representing 1,700 workers at the Erie plant announced a strike Tuesday morning, saying Wabtec had refused to accept a “short-term agreement that preserves the wages, benefits, and working conditions of GE/Wabtec employees.”
Wabtec proposed a contract in which current employees would continue to earn the same hourly rate, an average of $35 an hour, while new hires would be paid between $16.75 and $25 an hour, according to the local news outlet GoErie.com.
In a statement last week, Wabtech said the Erie plant is “GE Transportation’s least competitive site and it has been for years," according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. The company said its proposals are in keeping with working conditions at its unionized manufacturing facility in Wilmerding, Allegheny County. (Wabtec plans to move its corporate headquarters to Pittsburgh.)