Caterpillar: Labor's metamorphosis

July 03, 1994|By Kim Clark | Kim Clark,Sun Staff Writer

PEORIA, Ill. -- Ten times in 2 1/2 years the United Auto Workers struck Caterpillar Inc., but with no visible effect on the company.

Now as the union enters the third week of yet another walkout, many believe the outcome of the 11th will be different.

The company and the strikers are in the midst of a battle that could redefine all American workers' speech and strike rights.

Although the two sides are deeply divided, they do agree on one point: Whatever the outcome, this latest strike by 14,000 UAW members could set a new tone for labor-management relations nationwide.

"I think it's of epic proportions because of the implications," said Raymond Hilgert, professor of industrial relations at Washington University's business school in St. Louis.

The reason this strike may be so important: timing. The strike comes as:

* An administrative law judge is set to make a potentially precedent-setting decision on whether Caterpillar broke laws protecting workplace speech when it fired more than a dozen workers for sporting pro-union buttons, T-shirts, balloons and signs.

* The U.S. Senate is set to vote on a proposal to ban companies from permanently replacing strikers.

* The company is expected to report another highly profitable quarter despite its union troubles, and while the union tries to combat indications that hundreds of its members, apparently fed up with the union's continuing demands for sacrifices, are crossing the picket line.

Peoria-based Caterpillar broke a 5 1/2 -month strike in 1992 by hiring replacement workers. This time, it has placed ads in newspapers, including The Sun, offering $17 an hour to anyone who will work "in place of" strikers. Caterpillar insists those workers are not permanent replacements but new hires.

But if the UAW succeeds and forces the heavy equipment maker to rehire some fired workers and stop giving preference to previously hired replacement workers, other unions are likely to follow the UAW's unusual tactics, union strategists say.

However, if this strike too ends like the others did, managers at other companies "might decide it is time to take a hard line against their union," said Steven Colbert, a heavy industry analyst for Prudential Securities in San Francisco.

Today's labor dispute has its roots in the bitter 163-day strike in 1992.

After 13 years of layoffs -- when UAW employment at Caterpillar fell by more than a third from the high of nearly 40,000 in 1979 -- Caterpillar refused to sign a UAW contract patterned after one already negotiated with competitor Deere Inc.

The company offered small raises and some job security, but refused a union demand to guarantee the 14,000 UAW jobs.

So the UAW struck. But members started crossing the picket line when they saw applicants lined up for replacement jobs.

The union called off the strike and began plotting alternatives to pressure the company to sign a more union-friendly contract.

One tactic was an inspiration of a soft-spoken machinist at the York, Pa., plant.

Ken Meyers, a machinist who said he had never before protested anything, said he became fed up in April 1992 when Caterpillar chairman Donald V. Fites announced he would replace workers who were striking at other plants.

Mr. Meyers thought that was unfair, so, on an impulse, he pinned a union placard reading "Permanently replace Fites" to his shirt and walked in to work.

He was fired when he refused his foreman's order to take the sign off, but United Auto Workers officials quickly won him reinstatement.

As he walked back into the plant, this intensely shy man was greeted by a roar of applause from the other workers. "I surprised everybody," he said. "Even myself."

And he sparked a war of words inside Caterpillar plants across the country. More than two dozen workers were suspended from the York plant for wearing T-shirts in support of Mr. Meyers.

In Illinois, workers were fired for refusing to remove buttons, balloons or signs with phrases like: "Stop scabs," or "Cat treats workers like dogs."

To protest the firings, the union started filing unfair labor practice charges with the National Labor Relations Board.

Although some of the firings were legitimate, NLRB investigators found at least a dozen cases in which the evidence indicated the company violated federal laws protecting workers' rights to express themselves during a labor dispute, said Glenn A. Zipp, director of the NLRB's Peoria office.

Mr. Zipp said the NLRB usually rejects about two-thirds of the complaints it receives, but it has agreed to proceed on 92 unfair labor charges -- half of those filed by the UAW against Caterpillar because of evidence that the company has acted with "extreme unreasonableness" in harassing union officials and giving preferential treatment to replacement workers.

Jerry Brust, director of labor relations for Caterpillar, said the union members have been "baiting and taunting supervisors until somebody does something that they can claim is an unfair labor practice."

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