Few striking workers return to Caterpillar UAW stands firm against threat

April 07, 1992|By Jonathan P. Hicks | Jonathan P. Hicks,New York Times News Service

PEORIA, Ill. -- Striking members of the United Automobile Workers union held firm in the nation's most bitter labor dispute yesterday, largely defying an order by Caterpillar Inc. that they return to their jobs or risk being replaced by non-union workers.

Caterpillar said about 300 of the 12,600 striking workers had crossed the picket lines, while union leaders insisted the number was far lower.

The union, which has been on strike for five months, said that the low number demonstrated that its members were united in wanting Caterpillar, the world's largest manufacturer of construction equipment, to match a labor agreement signed last year between the UAW and Deere & Co. But the union was far from jubilant about the day's events.

"We don't look at this as a victory," said Bill Casstevens, the UAW's secretary-treasurer. "The only victory we will have is when our workers go back to work with a decent contract."

On the other side, Caterpillar said it would begin advertising today in local newspapers for recruits to fill the strikers' jobs.

Both union members and analysts of labor-management relations say the confrontation has wide implications. Indeed, breaking the strike would reduce the bastion of unionized collective bargaining to a new low, they say.

While Caterpillar employs fewer than 2 percent of the UAW's 900,000 members, unionism is deeply entrenched at this large industrial company. And breaking the union at Caterpillar would almost surely weaken the UAW's bargaining positions in negotiations next year with General Motors, Ford and Chrysler. These companies could take positions similar to Caterpillar's, many in the union fear.

Many union members said that because they considered their decisions crucial to the union's future, they chose at the last minute to stay away from their jobs, despite the personal hardships the choice entailed.

"This has hurt me a lot financially," said Morris Bell, 51, a machine operator who has worked for Caterpillar for 20 years. "It has created a strain on my family, and we do the best we can with food stamps. But we have to stand together as a union if we're going to be successful."

On the company side, Gerald S. Flaherty, a Caterpillar group president, said: "Caterpillar would like nothing better than to get all striking employees back to work. We know that it's a difficult decision. So we anticipate that their return will take place over time, not in just one day."

The company said that the striking workers could claim their positions as long as they remained vacant and that filling the jobs with replacement workers would take about three weeks.

Yesterday's protests on the picket line were peaceful, even upbeat, with union members driving down the long road that links the three gates at the company's plant on the east side of Peoria on the Illinois River.

As car after car driven by union members moved past with strikers raising their fists in a triumphant sign of solidarity, pickets kept their vigil at the gates, looking to recognize anyone who might cross the picket line.

bTC The drivers' cars and trucks carried signs with such slogans as "God bless the UAW," "Fites and Lorenzo: two of a kind," a reference to Donald V. Fites, Caterpillar's chairman, and Frank Lorenzo, who led Eastern Airlines when the air carrier replaced striking union members several years ago. The carrier later declared bankruptcy and has ceased operations.

None of this tension was seen at the York, Pa., operation, which was the only Caterpillar manufacturing plant in the United States that UAW members weren't striking.

Terry Orndorff, bargaining chairman for the UAW in York, said the union's leadership had decided that sending the 1,257 hourly plant workers out on the picket line wouldn't have helped their cause.

Caterpillar announced late last year it would probably shut down the York plant because its costs were too high and asked the union to agree to cost-cutting measures.

Although the union never agreed to the cuts, the company announced yesterday it would pay any new workers at York a "training wage" of between $7 and $13 an hour, far below the average union member's $17-an-hour wage.

Caterpillar also announced a similar two-tier wage system for all of its parts divisions, including a 225-worker parts distribution operation in York. The parts workers were not on strike.

"Our people all came to work today," said Jeff Hulfish, spokesman for the York plant. "But that doesn't mean they have accepted" the changes to the contract Caterpillar made.

Local union leaders said that, while the workers were acting as if everything was "business as usual," they were also prepared for an escalation of the labor fight.

"Whatever we need to do, we will. If we are called out on strike, we will go," Mr. Orndorff said.

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