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UAW Workers at CAT Demand Change

by UAW ‘Members for CHANGE’ |
October 27, 2005
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Peoria, IL - United Auto Workers (UAW) members employed by Caterpillar Inc. ratified a six-year agreement, Jan. 9, 2005 . Many union members called it, “The worst contract in the history of the union.”

The contract creates what amounts to a four-tier wage system: Full wage employees (pre-1998), ‘New Hires’ (with a 35% reduction in wages), ‘Competitive Wage’ (at the Morton parts division) and the nationwide ‘supplemental’ employees (who get wages only - no health care benefits, paid holidays, vacation or sick days etc.).

The contract also forces workers and post-1992 retirees to pay premiums for health care coverage, as well as deductibles and co-pays beginning in 2006, ranging from $1000 to $3000. The premiums in the last three years of the contract are said to be fluid, with rates to be a percentage based upon the corporate cost of the premium which could be anything, considering it is the company’s plan.

Making matters worse for unionism, the ratified agreement included UAW-endorsed concessions which sacrificed the union members’ incentive compensation pay (a benefit worth far in excess of an estimated $20 million per year) in exchange for marginally reduced premiums and co-pays.

Union members resoundingly rejected - by over 90% - a similar company proposal in April 2004. In August 2004 union members again rejected what the company referred to as its, “last, best and final offer.”

During negotiations, CAT CEO Jim Owens was quoted as saying we need to eliminate the, “us - theyisms within Caterpillar.” The company is plugging a ‘one team’ culture ideology, and according to them we are embarking on a ‘cultural journey.’ They have spread the Team Leader (Junior Foreman) concept to more business units, heavily recruiting from the underpaid UAW new hire ranks.

In dealing with workers the company uses the ‘my way or the highway’ and ‘shoot first and ask questions later’ approaches to disciplinary action. At times the company abandoned all forms of progressive discipline (like verbal or written warnings) and put workers on the street for the first offense and sometimes for minor infractions, especially for union reps.

Another slap in the face: The corporate propaganda technique of taking workers out of the shop on company time for reward lunches when a division meets sales goal. On Sundays in the Peoria area, the company has taken workers on chartered buses to Chicago for an all expense paid, all you can eat, day at the ball game. These are just examples of the corporation throwing crumbs to working people while shareholders rake in the billions and managers get record-breaking profit sharing checks at the expense of working people.

Meanwhile many of us, particularly New Hires, with wages reduced by 35%, merely wish we could afford to take our wives and children out to dinner in a local area restaurant. Many of the UAW members in all the locals from Decatur, Peoria, Aurora and nationwide drive distances of 60 miles (or more) to go to work at Caterpillar - yet with fuel prices ranging over $2 per gallon the company has done nothing to help us. That does not begin to touch on the pain felt by the Morton parts division employees, referred to as Competitive Wage, who make far less than the manufacturing New Hire rate.

The company justification for the wage concessions was that they wanted to pay the average national manufacturing wage. The national average is arrived at by taking the highest known wage and the lowest and calculating the middle. Traditionally, major corporations like Caterpillar have made up the high end of the wage spectrum, which helps hold the average up. When enormous transnational corporations begin making average wages their goal, the average just keeps getting lower and lower.

Members want change!

There is growing support and interest in the Members for CHANGE team of UAW activists founded in the UAW Local 974. A young up-and-coming union activist, Rob Wilson, and a 30-plus year seasoned veteran, George Cornwell, joined forces in early 2005 to make bids for president and bargaining chairman of the local. While the bid was unsuccessful, they utilized it as a launch platform for local union-wide and community-wide activism.

Wilson, uses his veteran planning and strategic skills to the advantage of unionism, while working to build community support - frequently writing in local area newspapers challenging the corporate propaganda and writing for the Local union paper on shop floor issues. George Cornwell combines the visionary leadership style with a worker rights agenda and an in-depth knowledge of arbitration precedence that wins shop floor grievances.

Caterpillar struck back at the growing rank-and-file movement by discharging George Cornwell in March, within days of his nomination for the Local-wide bargaining chairman position. CAT claimed ‘inappropriate behavior,’ stemming from a verbal altercation with management during a grievance procedure. Cornwell was performing his duties as Grievance Committee Chairman (a federally protected status) when the episode took place. He was reinstated to work on Sept. 19 and the group celebrated with the first of many Solidarity Day rallies on Sept. 24.