UAW and the “Cat” Defeat

Against the Current, No. 39, July/August 1992

Earl Silber and Steven Ashby

“IT’S FAR FROM OVER,” declared AFL-CIO President Lane Kirkland of the five-month Caterpillar strike as 12,600 United Auto Workers (UAW) members walked into the plants without a contract. Kirkland’s rosy optimism is off the mark. The United Auto Workers union at Caterpillar suffered a harsh defeat, one which will reverberate throughout the American labor movement and beyond. Kirkland’s statement doesn’t reflect militancy from the labor officialdom, but “put on a happy face” PR designed to cover their failure to act.

The Cat strike could have been won, yet the UAW top leadership sent the strikers back with a major defeat. The pain is being felt today by the returned strikers. Like waves from a stone dropped into a pond, the pain will spread. Perhaps we can learn from this defeat.

The Issues in the Strike

The Cat strike began last November 4, when the United Auto Workers called out 2,600 Caterpillar workers. Cat management led by President Donald Fites had demanded major concessions from the workers. The company refused to continue the forty-year tradition of pattern bargaining (set at Deere in the agricultural machine industry) in which all the major, unionized plants in an industry follow the same basic package for wages and benefits. Pattern bargaining is a union gain won decades ago that prevents wage competition among the workers in an industry.

Instead of getting the pattern contract, Cat workers faced an assault on hard-won gains. Caterpillar, the number one producer of earth-moving equipment internationally, cited international competition, especially Japanese, as the reason to dump the U.S. pattern in the agricultural implements industry.

What did Cat management demand? Here are some of the take-backs:

* A two-tier wage scale that brings in some new hires at $7/hour with an $8.50/hour maximum pay, a hefty cut from the existing $16/hour starting wage. This became a common corporate tactic in the 1980s: to pit older workers against younger, undermine worker/union solidarity and begin slashing all wages.

* Loss of job assignments. Workers would be “flexible,” assigned to whatever job management wanted. A worker who refused would lose the right to the promised six-year job security guarantees. A second refusal could cost you your job. These conditions made a mockery of Cat’s promise of “job security.” This “flexibility” was a fundamental attack on the gains workers have made; without job descriptions management is freer to harass the workers and move them around like robots.

* Weakening of company paid medical insurance. Workers would have to pay up to thirty percent of the cost if they chose to go to a hospital not designated by the company. This has been another favorite corporate tactic over the last decade  to slash workers’ standard of living.

Despite the fact that UAW Cat workers had only just begun to recover from the brutal 207-day strike in 1982-1983 (the longest multiplant strike in the history of the UAW), Cat UAW members took on the corporation. The strike vote in late fall was overwhelming: ninety-four percent.

The Strike Spreads

When Cat insisted on its cuts the UAW called out 2,600 workers. Cat responded a few days later with a lock-out of 5,700. Cat management soon issued its “Final Offer,” including the demands listed above and more. The UAW rejected this “offer” and called out most of the remaining 12,500 workers in March.

Since the 1982-83 strike Cat workers had already made substantial concessions to management. The UAW workers were united in their determination to make a stand: enough was enough.

On March 22 the UAW sponsored a massive indoor rally (three auditoriums were necessary to hold the overflow crowd) in Peoria that brought out 20-30,000 workers. UAW and other union workers came from across the country; outside, streets were lined with buses covered with signs of solidarity from unionists from Ohio, Minnesota, Michigan, Colorado and Tennessee.

The halls were flooded with a rainbow of color; red, green, and yellow union jackets and caps blanketed the auditoriums. Thousands of picket signs declared “Union Busting Won’t Play in Peoria,” “United We Bargain, Divided We Beg,” and “Will Rogers Never Met Fites.” The demonstration was an impressive, heartening display of the potential power of the labor movement.

One speech after another by UAW local and international leaders, and by national leaders of other unions, militantly declared that labor would stand by the Cat strikers and that the UAW would stand strong and united.

Union after union announced donations and workers stuffed money into “adopt a striker” barrels; in all a million dollars was raised in contributions to support the strike. The UAW International announced that each striker would immediately receive a $2,000 payment to supplement their meager $100/week strike benefits.

The event was an enthusiastic pep rally, but no strategy emerged from the podium. There was no call for further demonstrations of labor solidarity. No call to unionists and workers in nearby Chicago and other cities to come and create effective picket lines.

There was no call to strike other plants in the industry. No call to strike the auto industry where hundreds of thousands of UAW workers would be faced with similar take-back, union-busting grabs. No call for AFL-CIO led marches and strikes across the industrial Midwest. No call to create Cat solidarity committees across the country.

Meanwhile, inside and outside the hall, the UAW worked with the cops to harass and arrest people distributing radical literature.

Caterpillar Calls For Scabs

When UAW President Owen Bieber and UAW Secretary-Treasurer Bill Casstevens (the UAW International representative on the negotiating team) addressed the possibility of Cat bringing in scabs, their only response was to insist that such a tactic would surely fail as only the highly skilled UAW workforce could maintain the high quality production that had made Caterpillar the number one global producer of construction machinery.

In early April Caterpillar upped the ante, placing ads for scabs (“permanent replacements”) in local papers. Cat sent letters to all strikers and laid off workers calling them to return to work by Monday, April 6 or face losing their jobs.

Especially after President Reagan led the way by crushing the air controllers union (PATCO) in 1981 and replacing all the workers with scab labor, a number of companies had tried Cat’s strategy with some success–most notably Hormel and the Tribune Company, while Eastern Airlines also tried but wound up out of business. But were Caterpillar to succeed it would have had an effect far beyond the others.

If Cat management could succeed in busting the UAW, the preeminent American industrial union, in plants organized for over five decades, it would encourage other industrial corporate giants to follow in its footsteps. This would affect blue- and white-collar workers alike,
for experience shows that white-collar wages follow the blue.

On April 6 Cat UAW workers in the thousands, encouraged by supporters from other unions, lined the roads outside the factory gates in Aurora and Peoria screaming at the few scabs and management as they drove through the gates. Over the course of the next few days about 500 Cat workers crossed the lines–only about four percent of the workforce–as the overwhelming majority of UAW workers stood firm.

Debate and International Support

Across Illinois at this time there was a raging debate among workers about Cat’s call for scabs. UAW workers called in to radio talk shows (on which the Cat strike was the number one topic across the state) trying to explain why any worker making $16 an hour plus benefits would go on strike in the midst of a deep recession, when millions of workers would feel lucky to get any job, let alone such a relatively high paying one.

The mainstream, corporate media predictably denounced the strike and workers across the state were divided, with many younger people eager for the still high-paying jobs. And why shouldn’t they be? What have our unions done to instill solidarity? What have our unions done to win the hearts and minds of young people today? While newspaper reporters could find few laid off aerospace workers in nearby St. Louis willing to come and scab, the company reported receiving 40,000 calls in the first week of April.

At this point South African unionists staged one-hour in-plant strikes in solidarity with the Caterpillar strikers. The International Metalworker Federation declared a strike alert in Cat’s European plants. Cat came back to the bargaining table, though still holding onto their “Final Offer.”

This demonstrated the potential of international labor solidarity. But the Metalworkers never took a single job action to help the Cat strikers. Nor did the UAW, big players in the Federation, call for it.

Caterpillar claimed international competition drove them to break the pattern and go for the cuts. Cat’s international system of production helps them fight a strike in any one location; therefore, international labor cooperation is necessary to turn up the heat.

What about the workers at Mitsubishi and Komatsu in Japan? Mitsubishi has joint production with Caterpillar in Japan; Komatsu is Cat’s main global competitor. Has the UAW been building such international unity?

Instead, UAW leaders constantly preach hatred of Japanese products and fuel the anti-Japan fire. Their “buy American, bash Japan” campaign blocks U.S.-Japan labor solidarity. The UAW and other “patriotic” union leaders make it harder to create such unity.

UAW’s Surrender

Caterpillar management agreed to join the UAW leadership and federal mediators for further talks on April 13 but the stalemate persisted. Cat was intransigent. On April 19 the UAW top leadership suddenly caved in–catching both Caterpillar management and the Cat workers off guard with their rapid capitulation–and told workers to return to their plants.

Cat showed its arrogance by refusing to allow workers into the plants–saying they would tell workers when they were ready to allow them back to work. Cat initially announced plants to lay off fifteen percent of the workers immediately, but then agreed to cut through attrition and early retirement incentives.

When the company changed the rules, threatened the strikers’ jobs and began recruiting scabs, the UAW caved in. Cat was turning on its junior partners, the managers of the UAW in Solidarity House. When the Cat hissed, the Solidarity House mice turned tail and ran.

In the current economic situation, with hundreds of thousands of unemployed skilled and semi-skilled industrial workers, any company that is willing to pay the price can break a union by bringing in scabs. The UAW strategy of withholding their skilled labor and insisting Cat couldn’t make quality products without UAW members was a failure.

In fact, well over 10,000 salaried employees were already turning out 100 of the 700 a month normal production of earth moving machinery. Cat used these salaried workers to experiment with ways of increasing productivity by cutting jobs. UAW workers now feel doubly betrayed–by their union leadership and by the company they had helped build into a Fortune 500 company. Many are now filled with bitterness and fear.

As one Aurora Cat worker said, “The company’s using a new tactic. They went from cooperation to intimidation. They’ve set up new surveillance cameras in the plant. They’ve got the guys scared to death, got `em in a work pool. All of a sudden they don’t have a job [classification], they’re out sweeping the sidewalks and whatever. Word is they fired one union committeeman who was strong on the [picket] line. I don’t know one union member who’s going to go out [on strike] anytime soon.”

Cat is refusing to deduct union dues from workers’ paychecks, saying there is no union contract, in an attempt to pressure the union leaders to force the Cat workers to acquiesce.

What Could Have Been Done

When Cat first demanded cutbacks and an end to pattern bargaining, the local UAW leadership mobilized the workers and took a firm stand. They knew Cat was out to cripple or bust the union. But the UAW international leadership led the strike as they have others, patiently accepting the standard court injunction against mass picketing and waiting for the company to seriously negotiate.

They treated the strike as a business-as-usual job action that could be won by the workers simply withholding their labor. Their strategy was a dismal failure, but the UAW Caterpillar strike did not have to be a defeat.

An effective strategy to win the Cat strike was possible:

* The UAW could have called out its workers in other plants, from John Deere to GM. The demand for cutbacks and the attack on pattern bargaining was and is a threat to all these workers, their families and communities.

* They could have organized huge, stop-the-scabs, shut-production-down picket lines at the Cat gates in Peoria, Aurora and elsewhere. This would have required mobilizing massive popular support in major union centers like St. Louis, Chicago, and Detroit.

* They could have taken over one or more plants with an in-plant occupation, as the UAW sit-down strikers did in Flint, Michigan forty-five years ago, and as the Pittston UMWA miners did in 1989.

* They could have called for solidarity strikes by the International Metalworkers Federation.

These actions would have required violating the court injunctions and the Taft-Hartley law–but the time has come for labor to stop whining about anti-labor courts and legislators and fight back.

Unions never would have been organized in the first place if the labor movement in the 1930s and `40s had the kind of weak-kneed leadership that now leads the UAW and AFL-CIO. Workers had mass pickets, fought in the streets, held massive sit-in occupations, and held general strikes to organize the CIO in the 1930s and `40s.

New York City subway drivers broke the law in 1966 and won, with amnesty for all. Chicago City College teachers broke a court injunction and won in 1971. The mineworkers (UMWA) violated the Taft-Hartley Act in 1977 and won. Pittston is a more recent “illegal” example. It takes organization, a desire to win, savvy political sense, and leaders prepared to go to jail and risk their careers and our union treasuries. Violating the law is serious business, but so is union-busting.

Building mass picket lines would have required a massive, public campaign to reach out to other unions, supporters (e.g. students), and unorganized workers, telling them that if unions are crushed and wages slashed then all American workers’ standard of living will go down as well. The union could have sent out teams of strikers and their families to shopping centers, schools and college campuses, shopping malls, churches and union halls across Illinois and the Midwest to create public support.

Unless the unions today reach out to American workers and explain their just cause, unorganized Americans will increasingly oppose unions. The corporations are on the offensive to blame unions for high wages that drive companies and jobs out of the country. If  unions do take up the crying needs of millions of non-union working people, they will gain gratitude and support. So long as they don’t, the non-union majority will continue to buy the corporate line.

Economic Changes and Weak Labor

The UAW leadership could have taken these steps to win the strike, but didn’t. Understanding why requires analyzing the recent evolution of the labor movement and the postwar changes in the American economy.

Caterpillar’s call for scabs to break the union marks a major turning point in corporate-union relations. Since the advent of the Cold War in the late 1940s, corporate America has relied primarily upon “good relations” with union management to maintain “labor peace.” Cold War pro-business unionism did establish higher real pay for millions of industrial and white-collar workers in the period of rising corporate profits, but at the cost of millions of jobs, longer work weeks, and faster-paced work.

However, since the world recession of the mid-1970s and the growing international competition for markets and profits, American big business has been on the offensive against unions. Under these changed conditions the corporate godfathers are attacking the remaining unionists and the union establishment.

This business offensive takes place in a new context that makes it harder for workers to win a strike than in the past.

* Strikers face multinational corporations with plants across the globe. Over 80,000 autoworker jobs alone have been moved to Mexico, where workers are paid one-fifteenth of U.S. wages.

* The ten percent of the population that owns eighty percent of the wealth are on the cultural and political offensive. Their assault on unions occurs simultaneously with their attack on women’s rights, civil rights, health care, affirmative action, and on the social programs won in the 1960s.

* The collapse of “communism” in the Soviet Union has provided new ammunition for the ruling class ideological offensive to convince working people that “free enterprise” and a non-union economy are the only alternative.

* Even liberalism no longer offers a  alternative to the Herbert Hoover/ Ronald Reagan “free marketeers” feed-the-rich politics. Hence the demise of the Democrats as labor’s mediocre ally.

New Strategies, New Leadership

The statistics on union membership tell the grim story: Membership has dropped by more than three million since 1980. Just sixteen percent of American workers are members of unions–less than half of the percentage organized in the 1950s.

Around one-quarter of manufacturing workers are organized. The total number of unionists is around 16 million–the same number as forty years ago, though the workforce has grown substantially.

Taking on the corporations and rebuilding the labor movement will take new, militant strategies and a new labor leadership. The current leadership is incapable of responding to the business offensive. They are a conservative social caste, living well by policing the workforce and producing “labor peace” within the rules of the corporate game. Their lives, their minds and their daily jobs put company profits first.

While the unions’ “social contract” with corporate America brought some wage gains and benefits to unionized industrial workers from the late 1940s to the mid-1970s, business has now abandoned this “cooperation” and “social contract.” But the unions are still playing by the old rules. These dinosaurs run unions like businesses and seek to keep the members passive, like outsiders looking on while our lives are being played with like chips in a poker game. We need a new concept of unions, not just new leaders.

Some of the AFL-CIO leaders are getting uncomfortable with the do-nothing labor leaders and make partial breaks from the old ways (the Pittston strike in 1989, for example). The AFL-CIO dinosaurs are not unified but even the best of the “rebels” are part of the system and accept the principle of putting profits before the workers’ welfare, and buckle in the face of the corporate offensive.

For labor to take on the business offensive they will have to win the hearts and minds of the unorganized workers, who are suffering under the recession and cutbacks in social programs and are being pitted against unionized workers.

Our unions must lead the fight for affordable housing, for national health care, for jobs, and for the democratic and economic rights of women, gays and people of color. A militant, social unionist AFL-CIO and UAW would have been in front of the cameras, leading marches and strikes after the Los Angeles uprising, denouncing the government and corporate role in perpetuating poverty, unemployment and racism.

Just as we need to break from the tactics and strategies of the past, we need a political break. We need our own political party. The union officials continue to rely on the anti-labor Democratic Party and on lobbying Congress.

The UAW ended up begging the National Labor Relations Board for a decision that would bar Cat from hiring “permanent replacements” or scabs. This follows the Machinists Union (IAM) who put their hopes in Congress to beat Eastern Airlines union-busting drive. The AFL-CIO political machines refused to shut down the airlines industry to stop the PATCO massacre.

Are We In This Together?

Over the last decade Cat UAW local unions has gone along with the national UAW strategy of “cooperating” with management to maximize production and cut back the workforce. In the Peoria plant the workforce was slashed from 24,000 in 1979 to 9,000 in 1992 as the UAW agreed to subcontract out union work, to work-change rules and speed-up to increase productivity. (The UAW itself has lost more than half a million workers in the last fifteen years.)

The UAW leadership enthusiastically encouraged the workers to join the Quality of Work Life Circles to improve production and “help the company and help ourselves.” Local 974 President Jerry Brown told labor journalist David Moberg that he strongly believed that “for us [Caterpillar] to be tough and viable, we’ve got to work together.” Even given the defeat of the UAW strike, “in my heart…I still think employee involvement is the right thing to do.”

The problem is, Brown said, management “took all our willingness to cooperate as weakness. We were stabbed in the back.” But experience has taught the Cat workers that the company got the benefits ($15 million saved and hundreds of jobs lost at the Aurora plant alone) while the workers got zip.

As one Aurora worker said on the picket line, with others nodding agreement, “We learned the hard way. Cooperation means we give them ideas worth millions and they give us hot air.”

Without an alternative view workers are left with the idea that they must cooperate to help the company. It’s either/or. Either we go along with “the international market,” meaning support the company’s profit-first/we’re-in-this-together agenda, or we organize national and international labor solidarity toward organizing all workers into unions.

“Cooperation” through speed-up, job cuts, and slashes in wages only weakens the labor movement by pitting one plant’s workers in competition with another, and U.S. workers in competition with workers in other countries. As the German workers’ strikes are demonstrating, a united workforce can militantly combat concessions. The average workweek in Germany is thirty-five hours, compared to forty-five hours here.

Ultimately the only way forward is to fight to take over the great tools of production and say, “Let’s divide up the work so that everyone can do productive, creative useful work for six hours a day leaving us time and energy for a truly human life.”

We need a democratically run, internationally planned economy based on human needs. Of course, to accomplish this we need organization and determination to take these tools out of the hands of today’s billionaire class, and a new leadership with the vision to fight.

July-August 1992, ATC 39