Despite Defeat, CAT Workers
“Vote Solidarity”

— Kim Moody

ONLY A MONTH after rejecting a deal backed by both the company and the leaders of the United Auto Workers (UAW) by 58%, union members at Caterpillar ratified the same contract by 54% on March 22—but with one big difference the second time.

CAT workers voted down the offer in February when the company proposed to take back only 110 of the 160 union members fired for dispute-related activities, leaving 50 to face an uncertain future in arbitration. The contract was voted down, above all, because the majority of the workers realized that if the best fighters could be fired there wouldn’t be much of a union left.

As one worker at Caterpillar’s East Peoria, Illinois plant put it predicting rejection in February, “I think the members will vote solidarity.”

Indicating that if CAT wanted a contract the issue of the fired workers was the key, Mike Legel, who works on The Unionite newsletter from UAW Local 974 in East Peoria, said after the vote, “Hopefully, Caterpillar will come to the realization that we are not about to abandon our brothers who were illegally discharged.”

Apparently they did. In the process, the union members at Caterpillar sent a strong message to management, union leaders, and to the 4,000 scabs who were not paying union dues before the ratification and couldn’t vote on the contract, that whatever was in this contract, the union workers would fight on.

Resistance From the War Zone

It should come as no surprise that the heart of the rejection movement came from some of the plants in the Illinois “War Zone.” The center of this movement was Decatur, scene of the long struggles at A.E. Staley and Bridgestone-Firestone, as well as Caterpillar.

In Decatur, Local 751 rejected the contract in February by 9 to 1. Even in March, with all 160 illegally fired workers back, the Decatur CAT workers voted down the offer by 7 to 1. Decatur workers spread the word by distributing Kick The CAT, a newsletter put out by militants in that plant.

Workers at the giant East Peoria plant voted no by 6 to 1 in February and only barely passed it in March. Ratification did not mean that the majority were happy with this contract. As Legel told the Detroit Sunday Journal, “Our only victory is that we still have a union.”

It is a “flexibility” contract that includes expanded use of temporary workers, flexible schedules at management’s whims, a new incentive system tied to unit production, and the notorious two-tier system where new hires start at 70% of the union wage and reach parity only at the end of the six-year contract.

From Cooperation to Confrontation

Throughout the prolonged struggle, Caterpillar seemed almost invincible. Its sales soared and its stock tripled between 1993 and 1997. Its profits for those years leapt from $626 million to $2.3 billion. In the plants it conducted a reign of terror against union members.

Saving the union in the plants was no small achievement at the end of this six-and-a-half year battle.

In the 1980s Caterpillar had been a model of labor-management cooperation. CAT management used that period to restructure the company by building nonunion facilities in the United States and abroad.

Union members were reduced to about 25% of the workforce as CAT quietly expanded and the UAW leadership looked on silently. Then in 1991, management decided the time to reorganize its union workforce had arrived. They refused to follow the contract pattern set by the UAW at John Deere.

The UAW struck, but ordered the strikers back to work in April 1992 when the company threatened to bring in permanent replacement scabs, an act that sent shock waves across the labor movement. The UAW then attempted to run an “inside” campaign to force Caterpillar to back down, but CAT wouldn’t budge.

The UAW struck again in 1994, only to end this strike in December 1995 in what appeared a total defeat. The union put CAT’s final offer up for a vote, but the members voted it down overwhelmingly.

The UAW attempted to keep some pressure on the company by continuing to amass unfair labor practice charges through the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). By the time they recommended the February 1998 agreement, there were 441 Unfair Labor Practice charges against the company.

The company too had a legal strategy. In December 1995, just as the strikers returned to work for the second time, Caterpillar went to court with a suit that would have knocked the legs out from under the UAW’s traditional system of shop floor representation.

CAT contended that the UAW system of full-time, company-paid workplace representatives was illegal. Caterpillar, the Big Three, and most major firms under UAW contract had allowed this system to flourish informally for decades for its conflict containment features.

Indeed, the Big Three automakers opposed Caterpillar in court. Through the American Automobile Manufacturers Association, their brief said making company-paid workplace reps illegal would “significantly disrupt both the companies’ operating practices and the structures of collective bargaining relationships in the U.S. automobile industry.”

Such a decision would also cost the UAW millions, undermine its shop floor presence, and eliminate the ruling Administration Caucus’ chief patronage device. These full-timers are a mainstay of the Administration Caucus in the workplace and the local unions. They frequently collect overtime even when not in the plant, and some make as much as $100,000 a year.

In January 1998, after a 1997 appeal went against the company, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear the case. It appears that the acceptance of the suit by the Supreme Court was motivation enough for the UAW leadership to bring essentially the same offer that was rejected in 1995 to a membership they thought was desperate enough to desert fifty of their fired comrades. Clearly they underestimated the members.

Fites Fumbles

Building on the restructuring of the 1980s, CAT Chief Executive Officer Donald Fites launched an ambitious expansion program in the 1990s that saw the company go from thirty-nine plants to seventy-four worldwide, half of them abroad. By 1997, 51% of Caterpillar’s sales were overseas.

Following the big Pacific-rim craze of the decade, Fites targeted Asia in particular. In 1997 East Asia went into its financial tailspin, opening a period of deep industrial restructuring, austerity, and all those measures that make heavy equipment such as CAT makes a luxury.

Not only did Caterpillar’s Asian market collapse, but products it had sold there during its targeted expansion came flowing back as used, but durable “grey market” competition for its new U.S. sales.

Ironically, this piece of bad news for the company may have been good news for the union workers. CAT wanted this contract because it would drastically lower costs in this new competitive situation. CAT Vice President Wayne Zimmerman said it was “tailored to Caterpillar’s needs.” The workers, however, had convinced management they would hold the contract for ransom until their comrades were reinstated.

The savings from the new contract would be substantial indeed. About 4,000 of Caterpillar’s 12,900 union workers were eligible for retirement. The new agreement, which increased pension benefits $500 a month by the contract’s end, was designed to encourage them to take it.

In their place would come thousands of new hires at 70% of the old wage, who would remain cheaper until the end of the contract, when thousands more would retire and a new wave of low-cost workers would come along. The six-year deal guaranteed all of this and took at least some of the guess-work out of planning in an uncertain world market.

UAW leadership, long accustomed to being guardian of the corporate bottom line, could not see how to turn CAT’s new difficulties to the union’s advantage. The members, whether or not they knew of Fites’ fumble in Asia, used their veto to make the best of a bad situation.

The lesson here is clear: Wherever the rank and file have some shred of democracy, in this case the right to ratify a contract, they have some power. When there are some rank and file leaders to mobilize that power, they can win something. And sometimes, just sometimes, the out-of-control world economy helps.

Over? Nothing Is Over

CAT’s union workers face a difficult situation—a management with blood in its eyes, 4,000 line-crossers, and a top union leadership that is praying for peace. Donald Fites wants costs cut by any means necessary more than he wants labor peace. He proved he could run his plants with an almost one-sided class war and make big bucks. He reduced average manufacturing time in his U.S. plants by 75% over the last five years and now he wants more.

Strikers, line-crossers, and new hires alike are in for some serious labor intensification, downsizing, and long hours. The militants, at least, understand their long fight was just one battle. Camron Austin, a supporter of Kick The CAT, says, “This is not over.”

Rick Corbin, writing in The Unionite, answers the question, “Aren’t you glad it’s over?” with, “Glad what’s over?” “If organized labor has to fight for its survival, so be it, let it begin here.” “Over?,” he asks. “Nothing is really over.”

This kind of consciousness is not isolated to Caterpillar veterans. The recent rank-and-file rebellion at Saturn, where inexperienced members fought the company’s team concept organization, their local union leaders, and the UAW International to get under the “traditional” GM contract, showed the same outlook.

They lost the vote to dump the Saturn contract when the union threatened 2,700 layoffs, but as Saturn worker Tom Hopp told a Labor Notes school on union democracy in March, “Two thousand people agree with us. That’s a start.” The fighters from Staley to the Detroit newspapers, the activists in the long string of strikes at GM from 1994 through 1997, and the victors at UPS displayed this new consciousness too.

Win or lose their immediate battles, more workers today are seeing the “big picture:” capital on a worldwide rampage and union leaders in retreat or off on their own agenda. The result is not only strikes, but spreading rebellions in the unions.

Victories and near-victories for rank-and-file reform movements in recent years have included not only the Teamsters, but the 50,000-member Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees, the 40,000-member California State Employees Association, the 35,000-member Transport Workers Union Local 100 (election stolen in December 1997, to be rerun this June), and scores of smaller local unions.

Coming behind the victors and near-victors are those newer to the rebellion in countless locals across the country.

What Can We Learn?

The six-and-a-half year struggle at Caterpillar is not only an example of a growing consciousness, but a sort of university of lessons in the contemporary class struggle. On the one hand, it reminds us that rank and file persistence is, itself, a powerful force. On the other hand, the UAW’s entire approach to Caterpillar reads like a negative text book.

A union that lets itself become a minority of the company workforce is unlikely to win a traditional business union-style strike. The union should have followed the company, i.e., attempted to organize the new plants as soon as they popped up. This lesson applies equally to the UAW in the automobile industry and, indeed, too many unions in their core jurisdictions.

Both old and new experience points to the use of volunteer member organizers as the key to success. That, however, requires a certain trust in those members, something missing in the UAW. This distrust of the members also undermined the union’s “inside” strategy between the strikes, which, as pioneer workplace strategist Jerry Tucker observed, was run too much by “remote control” from Detroit.

Effective inside campaigns must not simply episodically mobilize the members, but draw on their initiative and involvement in designing the actions.

The union’s failure to take advantage of the changed international Position of CAT last year flows from its embrace of company competitiveness as a strategy for preserving the institutional basis of the union. The lesson here is clear: If you are not willing to at least wound the giant, don’t expect to win in open confrontation or, for that matter, in workplace guerilla warfare.

A broader lesson is that union democracy is not a luxury. In the final analysis, the members and their position in production are the strength underlying any such confrontation no matter what tactics or alliances accompany it.

If the members are accustomed to passivity in union business, to letting the headquarters do the driving, or hoping the leaders will do the right thing; if, in fact, they are excluded from real decision-making in union affairs, influence over bargaining, and the ability to make their leaders accountable, then the hope they can be mobilized at the “right” tactical moment is illusory.

When the members can use the union and its structures to mobilize themselves, then you have power.

The Caterpillar workers, like so many others, did not control their leaders above the local level. In a 14-plant strike over a national contract such as that at Caterpillar, local influence is not enough. Centralized headquarters’ control over bargaining goals and negotiations, over dispute strategy and tactics, and over the timing and procedures for presenting an offer to the members is a recipe for keeping the members disorganized.

To be a force in the struggle, the members must have collective power and influence over these processes. This the Caterpillar workers did not have. Union democracy isn’t simply about internal union affairs, it is about power in society.

The 1997 UPS strike was an example of this. The Teamsters had taken important steps toward democratization and membership power. In preparation for a major confrontation with UPS the Teamster leaders solicited grassroots input in to bargaining goals; members were kept informed regularly about bargaining progress; rank and file initiative was encouraged in the mobilization first against the company’s Team Concept program from 1995 on, and then in the contract campaign of 1997.

The existence of the Teamsters for a Democratic Union, of course, made much of this possible, reminding us that rank-and-file power and union democracy are not just about good structures, information and fair elections.

In the era of multinational corporate giants, this is a strategic lesson for all labor. The more union members realize the need to organize themselves and fight for union democracy, the fewer will be the setbacks such as that at Caterpillar—and the faster the real growth labor needs to win.

Kim Moody is the author of Workers in a Lean World (Verso, 1997) and An Injury to All. He is director of Labor Notes.

ATC 74, May–June 1998