Blue-collar town is torn by labor fight Caterpillar plant in York to close after 5-year dispute

Economic changes

As factory jobs disappear, workers ponder the future

March 31, 1996|By Alec Matthew Klein | Alec Matthew Klein,SUN STAFF

YORK, Pa. -- Take a stroll down Memory Lane, for such a place does exist, and there lies a gray slab of American industry about to fade away: A parts plant owned by Caterpillar Inc., the world's largest maker of earth-moving machinery.

Just beyond, on the same block, rises the foundation of what's to come: The I-beams of a mini-mart gas station.

And dividing the two stands an American flag, symbol of progress, power and -- here in this blue-collar town -- upheavals in the way of business.

This is the logic on one block of Memory Lane -- the aptly named boulevard undergoing tectonic change: Even as a service station prepares to open with the promise of 40 jobs and a starting wage of $6.20 an hour, a plant nearly 500 times larger is about to shut down next door. And in the process, 1,100 workers who earn an average of about $17 an hour will become economic fatalities in a war of wills between management and union, a five-year dispute bogged down in accusations, fear and fury.

Union: "It is war," said Barry L. Koicuba, president of Local 786 of the United Auto Workers. "They're eliminating jobs, that's what they're doing."

Management: "We wanted to reach an agreement with our employees that allowed the company to remain competitive in a global economy," said Caterpillar spokeswoman Marsha Hausser.

Drawn in black and white, the imbroglio nonetheless only seems to bleed into gray: A torn community at once condemns both sides as greedy. Beleaguered workers breathe not only fire, but a sigh of relief at the denouement of this protracted dispute. Merchants fret over the potential economic impact from the plant's closing, but county officials shrug at the dip in numbers with an abiding faith that life will go on.

And from the sidelines, many locals profess that they don't know what the clash is all about anymore: "It's a very muddled picture," said acting York Mayor R. Eric Menzer, the city's director of economic development.

This much is clear: What is happening in York -- a community linked to Baltimore by about 50 miles and 20,000 commuters -- is unfolding across the nation.

Lower-paying service jobs are growing while corporate America pulls the trigger on massive layoffs in an age of "downsizing," "right-sizing," "out-sourcing," technology, telecommunications, mutual funds, mergers and global competition from China and Japan to Mexico and Canada.

Or, as 48-year-old bartender Pat Keeney, wife of a long-time Caterpillar worker, fears: "The young people today, they're never going to have the opportunity to know what it's like to work for a good company with two cars, a couple of TVs, the wife at home with the kids. It's going to be very hard because all the big companies are doing this."

Where leveraged buyouts defined business in the 1980s, massive cutbacks have come to characterize this decade: AT&T lays off 40,000 workers. IBM wipes out 60,000. Sears, Roebuck & Co. eliminates 50,000. And yet the economy continues to hum, unemployment remains in check and companies are reporting record earnings and handing out generous compensation to their chief executive officers.

Like Caterpillar.

The pattern is familiar: Even after an 18-month strike by 8,000 workers that ended three months ago, Caterpillar reported record profits last year -- $1.14 billion -- then boosted the base pay of CEO Donald V. Fites by 20 percent, to $1 million -- plus about $1.5 million in bonuses and other compensation.

Apparently, the strike didn't matter. Neither did the company's March 19 decision to close the York plant over the next two to three years -- at least in the eyes of Wall Street analysts who promptly raised their projections of the company's earnings.

But Wall Street is a far cry from York, and the ways of the business world seem even more remote at Wiener World, a dark lounge around the corner from the plant where workers sit and drink draft beer and philosophize about "Cat" in their own terms.

"It's a war between the guys at the top and the guys at the bottom, and the guys at the top are winning," said Bill, a 54-year-old machine operator, who declined to give his last name for fear of retribution. "You're seeing a real attack on the working people of this country."

It's also about bitterness.

Camouflaged in a military green cap and a long white beard, the machine operator seethes with each beer consumed: His father served in World War II, he served in Vietnam, his son in the gulf war, his daughter in Bosnia. And now, he is sitting in this nondescript watering hole, scattered with broken peanut shells, and saying with bravado, "You endure, you adapt, you overcome, that's the way it goes." But then with a violent gesture in the general direction of the Caterpillar plant, he snarls: "We're killing the wrong people."

Time has left all sides festering in this intractable dispute. Rocks have been thrown from picket lines. Friendships have been fractured, divided by union-loyalists and those who reluctantly crossed the line back to work.

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