GE Fort Worth locomotive plant accused of breaking union agreement

Locomotives almost ready for delivery to BNSF on the tour of the GE locomotive plant near Tx Motor Speedway in Fort Worth, TX, Tuesday, Sept. 2, 2014.
Locomotives almost ready for delivery to BNSF on the tour of the GE locomotive plant near Tx Motor Speedway in Fort Worth, TX, Tuesday, Sept. 2, 2014. Star-Telegram

General Electric’s locomotive plant in far north Fort Worth is putting a strain on the company’s relationship with one of its Pennsylvania-based unions.

The plant, which opened in 2012 near Texas Motor Speedway, employs more than 500 people and builds railroad locomotives and mining equipment. The facility, near Texas 114 and Farm Road 156, cranks out an average of 1.2 locomotives per day, a plant manager has said, and those vehicles are bought by customers such as Fort Worth-based BNSF Railway and Union Pacific Railroad, based in Omaha, Neb.

But workers at the Fort Worth plant aren’t union members, and that has caused some heartburn among union representatives in GE’s much older locomotive plant in Erie, Pa.

One example of the tension is a complaint filed by Local 618 of the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America alleging that GE broke its contract with the union by employing a nonunion member to test wheels at the Fort Worth plant. That union has represented GE workers in Erie since the 1940s.

“The union believes that GE is refusing to let Local 618 technicians work in Fort Worth because it desperately wants to keep the union out of that plant,” union representative Gene Elk said in a September news release regarding the complaint, which was filed with the National Labor Relations Board.

The Pennsylvania plant is facing major cutbacks. On Friday, a GE official confirmed to The Associated Press that the company intends to lay off 1,500 of its 4,500 workers in Erie. The workers being laid off, possibly as soon as early January, belong to a different union branch, Local 506 of the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers.. The company blamed the layoffs on “lower expected production volumes for 2016.”

Company officials have given no indication of a loss of jobs in Fort Worth, where hiring has been steady in the roughly three years the facility has been open.

Settling the dispute

Regarding the dispute over work being done in Fort Worth, officials on both sides said this week that the union complaint is in the process of being resolved. A settlement has been approved by a labor board regional director, Elk said. However, the agreement hasn’t been finalized because the union objects to some of the settlement language and is appealing for changes.

Under the pending settlement, GE has committed to using Erie-based union laboratory assistants for future testing in Fort Worth, if the work is requested by Erie engineers, Elk said. GE also would provide about $5,500 in back pay to a union worker, he said.

A GE spokesman declined to discuss details of the tentative settlement but did not dispute Elk’s description of it.

“There is a process in place, which is governed by the terms of the collective bargaining agreement, to determine who to send if and when certain instrumentation testing work outside of Erie is needed,” GE spokesman Tim Bader said.

He also declined to address whether GE will take steps to prevent Fort Worth employees from joining a union.

Two entities, or one?

Elk also said that in agreeing to hear the case, the labor board struck down GE’s attempt to argue that its two locomotive plants — which operate under the names GE Transportation in Erie, and GE Manufacturing Solutions in Fort Worth — are separate entities. GE had argued that the Fort Worth plant wasn’t covered by collective bargaining agreements covering union employees in Erie, Elk said, even though the two plants perform very similar manufacturing tasks.

Bader declined to elaborate on that issue, too, except to note that the pending settlement does not make a determination about whether the Fort Worth and Erie operations are essentially the same company.

“We continue to maintain that GE and GE Manufacturing Solutions are separate legal entities,” Bader said.

Jobs shifting to Texas

Although the case is relatively small and covers work performed by only a handful of employees, it shows the underlying tension that has mounted as more manufacturing jobs have shifted from Rust Belt regions of the U.S. such as western Pennsylvania, to areas such as North Texas, where corporations face fewer hurdles put in place by labor unions.

There are now nearly 1.25 million workers in manufacturing jobs in Texas, according to industrial database Manufacturers News.

Industrial employment in the state grew 6.2 percent in the three-year period ending in May 2015. That was the time during which GE built its Fort Worth plant and did most of its hiring.

“Texas gets high marks for a quality workforce, its stronghold in tech and innovation and a lower cost of doing business, all of which have helped industrial employment grow,” Manufacturing News President Tom Dubin said in a statement.

Gordon Dickson: 817-390-7796, @gdickson