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Company wants big concessions from UAW--again
Showdown at Caterpillar?

By Lee Sustar | March 26, 2004 | Page 11

THE UNITED Auto Workers (UAW) could be on another collision course with Caterpillar Inc. UAW members voted by 96 percent on March 21 to authorize a strike at Caterpillar, the heavy equipment manufacturer, when the labor contract at the company expires April 1.

The company provoked two major strikes in the early and mid-1990s that led to the UAW's greatest defeat in decades. Workers had little information about negotiations prior to the vote, as management and union officials imposed a blackout on information to the press.

However, a source close to union negotiators reported several weeks ago that Caterpillar initially sought concessions on 69 issues. The most important of these are the length of a contract--a six-year deal--and health care. Cat wanted caps on health care costs that are retroactive to 1991, different health plans for new hires, retirees and other groups of workers, and co-pays that could reach $4,000 to $5,000 per year by the end of the proposed contract in 2010.

Management also wanted to increase the temporary layoff period from 10 to 15 weeks, and eliminate time-and-a-half pay for overtime and its replacement by a supplemental pay of 25 percent. Caterpillar signaled its intention to play hardball in December, when it filed a lawsuit against a new state law banning the use of workers from temporary agencies from being used as permanent striker replacements.

The issue of striker replacements has been central to the UAW's battle with Cat. The union went on strike for a new contract in 1991, but workers returned to their jobs after five months when the company threatened to hire permanent replacements.

Back inside the plant, workers carried out a series of job actions and wildcat strikes--including nine walkouts between September 1993 and July of 1994. Soon afterward, the UAW went on an all-out strike again--this time over unresolved unfair labor practices (ULPs).

Under federal law, Caterpillar couldn't hire permanent replacements during a ULP strike. The strike had the potential to help turn the labor movement around. But the UAW leaders, unwilling to mount a physical challenge to the scabs, forced an end to the strike after 17 months by declaring that the union would cut off strike pay and benefits to the workers if they didn't make an unconditional return to work--still without a new contract.

Meanwhile, Caterpillar had filed a lawsuit against the UAW that threatened to abolish the labor-management "jointness" funds used by the union to support a large part of its staff in the auto industry. As the dispute reached the U.S. Supreme Court in 1998, the UAW officials agreed to drop 440 outstanding ULP charges against Caterpillar --including the termination 50 workers out of 160 fired for union activity--if the company dropped the suit and agreed to a contract.

The rank and file was furious that UAW officials were willing to leave 50 workers without a job--and voted to reject the deal by 58 percent to 42 percent. The UAW was forced to return to the table--and the company relented and agreed to reinstate all 160 workers.

Nevertheless, the deal included massive concessions--including an end to pattern bargaining, a two-tier wage scale that paid new hires 30 percent less, more flexible work schedules, the elimination of some weekend overtime and the greater use of temporary employees. Incredibly, then UAW president Steve Yokich claimed that the Cat strike was a "victory" at the 1998 UAW convention.

In reality, the terrible defeat at Cat has haunted the UAW ever since. It set the stage for concessions in subsequent contracts in the Big Three auto assembly companies--including the disastrous permanent two-tier pay scale in the parts industry.

At Caterpillar, the UAW represents a much smaller percentage of the Caterpillar workforce, having dropped from 40,500 in 1979 to 15,100 in the early 1990s to about 8,000 today--about 12 percent of the company's employees. Nevertheless, if it comes to a strike or lockout, Cat workers still have enormous leverage at the company.

But this time, they'll need to build the kind of solidarity action that can withstand Cat's ruthless tactics and prevent the company from using strikebreakers. If union leaders again fail to do what's necessary to win, the rank and file will need to take matters into their own hands. They'll need active solidarity from across the UAW--and the entire labor movement--to stop the company's union-busting assault.

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