You've come to an old part of SW Online. We're still moving this and other older stories into our new format. In the meanwhile, click here to go to the current home page.
On the picket line

January 14, 2004 | Page 11

By Lee Sustar

PEORIA, Ill.--Why did United Auto Workers (UAW) leaders pressure members at Caterpillar vote to accept devastating concessions despite record profits for the company?

"The choice is between voting no or not voting at all," a 30-year worker told Socialist Worker at the UAW Local 974 vote here. "I can't in good conscience vote yes." But in the end, a majority--the UAW didn't immediately release vote totals--voted to accept a contract that introduces two-tier wages and massive increases in health care costs for both the 9,000 current workers and retirees.

Burdened by the defeat of two long strikes in the 1990s--and the unwillingness of UAW International officials to put up a real fight--even old UAW stalwarts were ready to throw in the towel. "You can only fight for so long, and then you get tired," Dean, a 31-year veteran worker, told Socialist Worker. "If we voted it down, they would have implemented an agreement that would have been worse."

Local 974 officials used the local press to maximize such fears, predicting that Caterpillar would permanently replace UAW members if they went on strike.

While the company would certainly have been aggressive, the fact is that the UAW--despite holding a strike authorization vote--never intended to fight. The union, which pushed concessions in the 1980s to make companies more competitive, this time made givebacks to a company that dominates its industry worldwide.

In any case, many longtime Caterpillar workers had no confidence in the UAW International, which forced an end to a strike in 1995 by cutting off strike benefits.

Since a contract was approved in 1998, the company has used concessions to outsource jobs--often to in-plant contractors. UAW membership at Cat has fallen from 14,000 to 9,000 since then.

About 1,700 of the UAW workers are "supplementals"--hired at 70 percent of top wage rates that were to gradually increase to scale. They got no benefits or vacation--but paid UAW dues. Under the new contract, they'll become permanent employees with benefits--but as "new hires" with lower pay.

The new scale begins at $10 per hour at the lowest labor grade--half the pay of current employees. But Bob Morris, a young welder, voted for the deal even though it cut his pay, since his only health insurance was "a hope and a prayer."

Divisions between veteran workers, scabs, supplementals and contract employees helped Caterpillar carry out a classic divide-and-conquer operation to sell this contract--with the UAW International's help.

UAW President Ron Gettelfinger sold the deal as "the best possible contract under very difficult circumstances." That should be a call to arms for every UAW member who wants to rebuild a fighting union.

Home page | Back to the top