The Caterpillar Strike as Metaphor


Not that anyone—least of all American factory workers over the last three decades—needs to be reminded that corporations have very little respect for working people, the International Association of Machinists (IAM) strike against the Caterpillar plant in Joliet, Illinois, removed any lingering doubts.

Judging by their actions, Caterpillar saw this negotiation as a unique opportunity to stick it to their workers.  Indeed, its truculent, take-it-or-leave-it posture is emblematic of every offensive aspect of post-Reagan corporate arrogance.  Labor relations have gone from hard-nosed collective bargaining to gladiatorial blood sport, with labor now shedding most of the blood. What used to be viewed as an undignified and unnecessary show of muscle by management, is now regarded as standard procedure.

What Caterpillar has said to the IAM is this:  No matter how healthy we are as a company, no matter how profitable we become, and no matter how much cold, hard cash we manage to rake in, we will never, ever, under any conditions, share one more nickel with the hourly workforce than is absolutely, positively necessary.  Which raises the question:  Why is this company taking such a hard line with their long-time, loyal workers?  Simple answer:  Because they can.

While it was announced Wednesday that IAM district leadership (as opposed to local leadership, directly answerable to the rank-and-file) had reached a tentative agreement with Caterpillar management to end the 15-week strike (approximately 780 workers went out on May 1), there’s a good chance the local will reject the offer when they vote on Friday.  No one can predict how these votes will go, especially after a lengthy strike, but given how disillusioned and resentful the membership it, a rejection is definitely a possibility.

According to reports, the company’s LBF (last, best and final offer) was very close to the concession-laden LBF that precipitated the strike in the first place and resulted in the membership spending 15 long, agonizing weeks on the bricks, drawing a paltry $150 a week in strike benefits.  It’s going to be interesting to see how successful IAM’s apparatchiks are in persuading the membership to accept what is, by all accounts, a profoundly inferior contract.

Among other things, it calls for a staggering 6-year freeze on wages and benefits.  A company making billions of dollars in profits off the backs of its workers insists on a 6-year wage freeze?  How cold is that?  And not only is this freeze being offered with a straight face, it’s being presented as one of those “If you don’t like it, pal, you can rot in Hell” propositions.  It’s true.  The company has indicated that if the union remains coy, they’re prepared to fire everybody and take their chances with a brand new workforce.

Last winter, Caterpillar showed how aggressive they were willing to be.  Appealing to that wildly misleading wage statistic known as “fair market,” Caterpillar insisted that the 450 workers at its London, Ontario, plant take a whopping 55-percent wage cut.  When the workers balked (and who wouldn’t?), the company locked them out.  And when it became clear that the union viewed these tactics as a form of economic extortion and were unwilling to roll over, Caterpillar shut down the entire factory and moved away.  Period.  No more jobs.

As far as pure commerce goes, Caterpillar is doing spectacularly well.  Profits are at a record high and forecasts for the future are even rosier.  Moreover, management is so confident and comfortable being in the driver’s seat, they’re not even trying to cosmetically cook the books for negotiating purposes.  Caterpillar executives are more than willing to admit that business is booming.  In fact, they’re bragging about it.

Last year the company earned a record $4.9 billion in profits, and expects to come in even higher this year.  But, alas, they’ve also vowed that none of that increase—none of that marvelous windfall—is going to end up in the pockets of the people who actually do the work.  Why would they give these people raises when, technically, they’re not obliged to?  Only a fool would pay more than necessary.

To make matters worse, Caterpillar executives are playing dumb.  Management is clinging to the fiction that it has no choice but to freeze wages because their pay scale is already higher than the “fair market.”  Of course, the insanely bitter irony here is that today’s “fair market” wage is a grossly misleading statistic, the tragic result of a concerted, two-decades long assault on American earnings.

Which is why the middle-class is shrinking so alarmingly.  It’s not unemployment that is killing the middle-class; it’s the depletion of decent-wage jobs.  While bottom-line fundamentalists like Caterpillar proudly see themselves as benefactors to their stockholders, what they are, in fact, is destroyers of the middle-class and subverters of the American Dream.  And if labor unions can’t put the brakes on this thing, who can?

DAVID MACARAY, an LA playwright and author (“It’s Never Been Easy:  Essays on Modern Labor”), was a former union rep.   He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, published by AK Press. Hopeless is also available in a Kindle edition. He can be reached at dmacaray@earthlink.net


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