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United Auto Workers Brutalized at Caterpillar

by Mike Griffin |
July 1, 2003
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Mike Griffin, left, at a march for workers' rights
Mike Griffin, left, at a march for workers' rights

Decatur, IL - Sunday, Jan. 9 proved to be a day of infamy for United Auto Workers members worldwide. The fallout from the new six-year contract with Caterpillar will ultimately touch the lives of every member, active or retired. Without any fight or any known strategy, United Auto Workers (UAW) leadership surrendered any hope of recovery at Caterpillar Inc.

The devastating contract passed by a narrow 59% margin after UAW international representatives told members that, in the event of a strike, they would be permanently replaced, or that Cat could move production to Dixie. In a shameful effort to secure a yes vote, the gloves came off and the threats flourished. Members say the informational meeting in Peoria, Illinois before the vote became so unruly after an international rep was booed off the stage, the meeting was cut short and the voting began.

In Decatur, in spite of weak leadership, the savvy rank and file of Local 751 rejected both the national agreement and the local agreements, by a margin of nearly two to one. Local 751 in Decatur however, does not have enough votes to vote down the master agreement for all Cat workers

The militancy in Decatur can be attributed to past leaders who had the courage to stand up to Cat and the UAW. It was in Decatur - where more than six years ago workers voted down offers by Cat and the UAW that left nearly 200 discharged members out in the cold - that the master agreement failed. Caterpillar and the UAW were forced to return to the bargaining table and reach an agreement that included the discharged members, in spite of the fact the national UAW said there was no more to be gained. UAW members honored their heroes while the ‘mighty UAW’ international union was willing to desert them.

National and local UAW leaders became the choir of despair with chants of, “This is not the time,” and, “This is the best we can do under these circumstances,” without clearly defining when the right time would be or what the right circumstances were. Cat began kicking the UAW in 1992 and continued until 1998 when a six-year concessionary agreement was finally reached. This agreement will continue the beating for six more years. Do the math. Eighteen years of, “This is not the right time.” How much longer will it take? Never!

In the past two decades the UAW has been on a path to destruction through its ‘jointism’ - partnerships with employers - and a variety of other schemes that mimic company unionism. Not one of those schemes has halted the massive losses in membership suffered by the UAW. When the UAW does circle the wagons, the employers are allowed to join the circle. Such was the case at Accuride Wheel in Henderson, Kentucky a few years ago. When UAW Local 2036 refused to accept a horrible contract offer, the UAW, after informing the company first, cut off strike benefits to the 600-plus member local. After an embarrassing picket of UAW headquarters in Detroit, curiously named ‘Solidarity House’, the UAW reinstated benefits to locked-out workers. Months later the UAW decertified the local and walked away, leaving those members without jobs, union membership, or hope, after more than three years of struggle. The regional director over the Accuride workers during that struggle is now the International President of the UAW.

The newly ratified Caterpillar contract has few changes over the previous offer - other than negative. Caterpillar, without blinking, never put another nickel on the table but shifted costs to different groups of employees. Why would they give something up, with all the white flags the UAW threw up? Incentive bonuses were shifted to the ‘bone us’ column to cover health care costs. Insurance costs for certain retirees were lowered some, but continue to rise throughout the life of the agreement. Part of that cost will come from working members who previously had paid insurance. Temporary employees remain third world members of the UAW. No benefits, no representation and no retirement; no hope! New hires are allowed to become full time under this agreement, but do not fare much better. The current ‘supplemental employees’ at labor grade 2, step 3, for example, have a base wage of $15.37 an hour. In the same grade and step if they convert to ‘new hires,’ they will be paid $12.50 an hour. The same pay for current employees is $20.44 an hour. New hires will receive benefits, which they now have to pay for, but no retirement! New hires will have a 401k, which they must pay into and are not a reliable source of retirement income. The August 2004 offer gave new hires the option of a 401k or the Caterpillar retirement.

Cat currently has more than 1100 supplemental employees, representing nearly 15% of their workforce and has offered early retirement windows for current employees. By the time this contract expires, Caterpillar may well be close to ending its defined pension plan. That is a giant step backward for any union, roughly 60 years backward. New hires will in many instances be working for $10.00 an hour less than current employees. Considering that most U.S. workers are working for 1979 level wages today, Cat has relegated its employees to poverty.

The parts division of Caterpillar, now known as Logistic Services, is paid so low after the 1998 agreement, some members are eligible for food stamps. York, Pennsylvania has only a few UAW members left. Cat has shifted most of those jobs to North Carolina. The Memphis facility wage scale starts at a whopping $8.25 an hour - from a company boasting record profits and the best market position in the industry. If the Memphis facility survives the six-year agony, workers can earn $10.50 an hour. Before we get too excited over this ‘rags to riches’ story, Memphis has been excluded from Plant Closing Protection.

Currently Cat is on the move to Mexico with UAW jobs from the Peoria area and salaried workers in the computer group have been outsourced to India. In the mid-1990’s, when the Denver logistics UAW local voted to accept the concession-ladened contract, the local union president committed suicide out of despair. Everything that union brother fought against, the UAW has surrendered, and without a fight.

What is in the future for UAW members at Cat? The only possible way to escape the ‘beg bargaining’ that robbed UAW members of the gains from years of struggle is for the members to organize and take control, local by local, and elect leadership that is accountable.

As a trade unionist reflecting on our blood-stained history, the sit-down strikes, the men and women murdered by the bosses’ goons and police, the blood shed and tears sacrificed by other generations for us, I am angered by this generation of so-called leadership in our movement so willing to piss on that sacrifice. From the top of the House of Labor to the bottom, I am shamed by those who have deserted workers in battle, who have lost the reality of class struggle, and contaminated our precious union with mirror images of the Bastards of the Boardroom.

Mike Griffin heads the Illinois-based War Zone Education Foundation