On 22 March the 12,500 members of the United Auto Workers (UAW) at Caterpillar, the multinational manufacturer of earth moving equipment, voted to end the longest running labour dispute in the United States. They had been without a union contract for more than six years and had gone on strike twice during that time first in November 1991 for six months, then in June 1994 for 18 months. Although the strikers voted to stay out on strike by an 80 percent margin in November 1995, the UAW cut off their strike benefits to force them to return to work a month later.
The strikers have been back at work for the last two years, forced to work alongside the 4,000 former union members who crossed the picket line during the last strike. The Caterpillar workers rarely make headlines but they are the most courageous and principled fighters in the class struggle in the US today. On 22 February they voted down an agreement made between the UAW and Caterpillar management, which would have left the fate of 50 workers fired for picket line militancy in the hands of arbitrators. At the insistence of UAW leaders, the Cat workers finally accepted the contract by a narrow margin on 22 March, but only after the company agreed to rehire all 50 union militants.
The terms of the contract offer no improvements over the other contracts rejected by Cat workers over the last six years. Most importantly, it imposes two-tier wages, by which new hires will be paid much less than veteran workers doing the same job. This contract is also a direct assault on the union. It forces the UAW to drop over 440 legal charges of unfair labour practices it had filed against the company on behalf of striking workers. The agreement also calls for the union to readmit all 4,000 scabs back into the union unprecedented in the US labour movement.
During the February no vote union members shouted the UAW leaders off the stage at the largest Caterpillar local in Peoria, which has 7,000 members. Workers wore T-shirts saying, 'I will never forgive...or forget', and, 'Hell no' to the union meetings and voted down the contracts by 58 percent, with the strongest 'no' at the largest plants. At the Peoria plant 60 percent voted no; at the Decatur local 90 percent voted down the contract.
Even a month later, although the contract was accepted by a 54 percent margin, significant sections of workers voted it down including 71 percent of the Decatur local. Many Cat workers have lost homes and cars and suffered broken friendships and families as the sides hardened over the years. But this has only increased their determination to keep on fighting. 'I go to work with anger every day. Most people do,' said Wayne Schmidt, who has worked almost 30 years at the Peoria plant. This was echoed by Mike Moats, who is just one year away from retirement but voted against the contract in February. 'I'll fight Caterpillar till the day I die. I'd love to get my job back, but I won't settle for this deal.'
This level of bitterness is more than understandable. Caterpillar management has been at war with its union workforce for more than a decade and has made no secret of its desire to break the union. Outsourcing to non-union suppliers has shrunk the UAW's membership at Caterpillar from 34,000 to 12,500 since the early 1980s. While slashing labour costs, Caterpillar management poured $2 billion into modernising its plants. Caterpillar has been raking in record profits all on the backs of workers. Last year Cat profits rose to $1.76 billion.
The defeat of the 1994 strike was a turning point at Caterpillar. Until then, workers had continued to build a solid network of shop floor union activists. Even after the end of the 1991 strike union workers had kept morale high by marching into and out of the plant chanting anti-Caterpillar, pro-union slogans, wearing 'No contract, no peace' T-shirts, and organising against scabs. Defaced photos of executives regularly appeared on urinals and simulated pistol targets, while scabs had to cross through gatherings of hostile union members in order to leave the plant at the end of their shifts. On nine separate occasions between September 1993 and June 1994 groups of Cat workers walked off the job in wildcat strikes, mainly to defend union activists.
But in 1995, after more than a year on strike, thousands of Cat workers began crossing the picket lines, while the union's top leaders refused to organise to stop the scabs. So great was the despair felt by many strikers that, when the UAW ordered strikers back to work in November 1995, 12 UAW members committed suicide rather than return to work without a contract. After the strike ended, Caterpillar's shareholders rewarded the chief executive officer, Donald Fites, with a 75 percent raise in salary, bringing his pay packet to $3.1 million. Since then the company has been on a campaign of revenge against union activists. Caterpillar imposed a new code of conduct, firing workers for wearing pro-union T-shirts or buttons. Management has also fired workers for such infractions as refusing to shake hands with scabs or opening their lunch boxes too slowly for inspection by company security guards.
The battle is not over. If anything, some groups of workers are more active than ever before. A group of Cat workers has begun publishing a newsletter called Kick the Cat, aimed at building a network of rank and file union activists from different plants. They used the newsletter to campaign against the recent contract offer and helped organise the February no vote. As the newsletter explained:
'We have endured a long and bitter struggle as UAW members at Cat and our families have endured as well. We have made many sacrifices and we have lost many members along the way. We must never forget we have been the victims of a brutal and vicious employer who will not rest until the UAW is destroyed at Cat... UAW leadership has for a very long time followed patterns of bargaining that have failed, and failed miserably, to protect our jobs and provide fundamental union values mandated by our constitution... The battle with Cat is win or lose. There is no middle ground.'
Caterpillar set out to destroy the union and hasn't yet succeeded. The new contract does not end the dispute but merely opens up a new chapter in the struggle. As George Boze, vice-president of Local 974 in Peoria, stated after the February vote, 'The company has made radicals of so many people.'