Big stakes in the Cat fight

April 21, 1992

Among Baltimoreans who have been watching the bitter Caterpillar strike, few can have a more personal stake than the local United Automobile Workers members at the General Motors plant on Broening Highway. At issue is nothing less than how their next contract may be negotiated.

Organized labor suffered a definite setback when the UAW lost out in its effort to impose "pattern bargaining" on Caterpillar, the nation's largest manufacturer of earth-moving equipment. Having won a favorable contract from rival Deere & Co., the union went out on the picket lines for five months rather than take anything less from Cat.

But in the end, the corporation's threat to hire permanent replacement workers became believeable enough for the UAW to cave. Its members are returning to work this week without a contract, with little to show for what their families have suffered and with many angry at both management and labor leadership.

For the automobile industry, this is big news. In the past, the UAW has carefully assessed the competitive position of GM, Ford and Chrysler, selected the automaker it thought was currently most vulnerable to union pressure, bargained for the best contract and then tried to impose a similar contract on its rivals. Such is the nature of "pattern bargaining." But if the Cat precedent holds, this approach could be in jeopardy. No matter which auto company settles first, its competitors are likely to be in a better position to deal hard for their own terms, based on their own special circumstances.

In resisting "pattern bargaining," Caterpillar contended that it had to protect its competitive position not only against Deere but against Japanese companies fighting for market share in global sales of earth-moving equipment. It is a management argument that could just as easily apply to the multinational automobile industry, and undoubtedly it will be heard when the UAW sits down with the Detroit Big Three next year.

For labor in general, rather than the UAW in particular, scabs versus strikers is a more fundamental issue. Since President Reagan fired striking air traffic controllers in 1981 and permanently replaced them with new hires, private-sector management has increasingly used this weapon to counter the hallowed union right to strike. President Bush has vowed he will veto any bill passed by the Democratic Congress to abrogate the hiring of permanent replacements for workers out on strike. Gov. Bill Clinton, Mr. Bush's prospective rival for the White House, sides with the AFL-CIO even though he comes from a "right-to-work" state. This could -- and should -- be a clearly defined issue in the presidential election.

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