Treading water in Peoria, Ill.

James North

February 16, 1993|By James North

BILL Wheat and his friends at the big Caterpillar tractor manufacturing plants here are tired of hearing themselves described as "overpaid." They do not habitually read the East Coast financial pages, but in late 1991, just as their bitter five-month strike was getting under way, they learned that one newspaper had paraphrased Donald Fites, the Caterpillar chairman, as saying that American incomes should "tread water" while workers in other nations close the gap.

At first, it looked like Bill Wheat and his co-workers in the United Auto Workers lost that strike. They returned sullenly to work in April after the company started to carry out its threat to hire permanent replacements. But listening to Mr. Wheat 10 months later raises doubts that management really won. Chairman Fites may be discovering what industrial autocrats seem to constantly need to re-learn -- that you cannot build a technologically advanced product that will sell in world markets when you insult and antagonize the people who actually make it.

Mr. Wheat is 44 years old, a union steward and activist. He has worked for the company for 23 years, and he has never been more angry; he spent a whole afternoon recently meticulously recounting the union's grievances, smiling only briefly and grimly toward the end of the conversation.

The Peoria union activists are open and honest, but they are not skilled at public relations. So they have not been able to wholly rebut charges that they earn too much. They do point out that surveys show that they are paid no more than their counterparts at Komatsu, their Japanese main competitor. They also add angrily that Mr. Fites himself earned $503,486 in 1991, an increase of $78,461 over 1990; the chairman, instead of "treading water," seems to have been breezing along in a yacht.

But they take their world of hard work so much for granted that they fail to note that their $16.98 per hour average pay comes with costs that the average white-collar worker is not asked to pay.

One of the drawbacks is shift work. Caterpillar assigns three permanent shifts, by seniority. At one crucial stage, back when his three children were in their early teens, Bill Wheat bounced among all three shifts.

"They were in sports, and I had trouble making it to all their events," he remembers. "If it was a really big game, I would have to just use up a vacation day."

Bill Wheat and his friends are not ecstatic over their assembly-line jobs; they talk of monotony and arbitrary pettiness from some foremen. But they do -- or at least they did -- take pride in their products. The men and women who make Caterpillar's earthmovers call all of them "tractors," even the huge D11s that sell for $975,000 each, and they are proud that the machines continue to sell all over the world. Caterpillar is America's second-largest exporter, after Boeing aircraft, and it has held onto its market share. The company is so confident that its machines will rarely break down that it can promise customers it will deliver replacement parts anywhere in the world, even in Siberia, within 24 hours.

But Bill Wheat and his fellow union members have been deeply bruised by management's attempt to weaken their organization. After their strike failed, they did come back into the plants, but they started "working to rule." These days, they painstakingly observe every single regulation. One of Mr. Wheat's co-workers explains, "If a light bulb burns out on my machine, instead of putting in a new one, I shut down and send a ticket to the electricians. Just like I'm supposed to."

The union leaders are straightforward men and women, and they are not comfortable with the idea of not doing their best. They emphasize that until Mr. Fites became chairman in 1990, they had cooperated with much of management's program to improve efficiency.

The union people emphasize that their fight is about much more than themselves. Caterpillar management has been "outsourcing," farming out work to non-union shops that pay half union scale.

That is bad for just about everyone, the union leaders say. Jerry Brown, the head of the Peoria local, explains, "If they eliminate the $18 an hour jobs and all that's left are the $7 an hour jobs, then who is going to be able to buy houses? There goes the construction industry. Who will be able to pay the taxes, for schools and roads?"

Peoria still has a comfortable, even prosperous air, with a busy central business district. There are several big hospital complexes, thanks partly to health benefits the union has won for its members over the years.

But too many more low paying jobs and the river city could go the way of other factory towns like Flint, Mich., or some of the neighborhoods around Sparrows Point, where stores and even houses are abandoned and grass grows in the vacant lots. In those ghost neighborhoods, not many people are even treading water.

James North is a Chicagoan who writes about labor, environmental and Third World issues.

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