Caterpillar’s Assault on the UAW

As predicted the contract expiration at Caterpillar Tractor Inc passed with little fanfare and no action by the UAW International union leadership. After taking a strike authorization vote, UAW leaders, and that’s a stretch of the imagination, continue talks in secret. The latest contract expired April 1 of this year and after a solid rejection of Caterpillar’s “Best and Final” offer, UAW leadership have returned to “secret negotiations” leaving an unhappy membership in the dark. The sins of the past [betrayal of their members in the six year struggle against Cat in the mid-nineties] continue to haunt a UAW international mis-leadership, which has grown progressively worse.

For the 8000 UAW members at Caterpillar in four states, hope for a fair and just contract could not be dimmer. The last contract, a six-year pact, laid the groundwork for negative bargaining at Caterpillar for generations; keyword, “generations”. Under the feeble leadership of former UAW president, Steve Yokich, with Richard Shoemaker heading up the Ag-Implement division for the UAW, the UAW allowed Cat to tier wages and benefits. Temp employees were agreed on for the first time. Employees who received less pay and benefits and who could only become full time, and members of the union, when Cat decided. Temps are still being hired and guess who will become trained, on-site scabs if a strike happened to occur? Cost shifting to retirees on health benefits was part of that contract as well. In spite of a UAW constitutional provision calling for equal pay, UAW mis-leadership sold the farm. Top leaders in the UAW were so desperate; they were willing to sell out the more than 250 members who were discharged during the dispute; most of them discharged illegally. A militant rank and file twice rejected the contract until it included returning their heroes to work. Sources say Shoemaker left the union hall in Peoria IL through the back door after a televised press release recommending the contract, avoiding members who had struggled for six years. Yokich dropped more than 450 NLRB victories and stooped to pay off scabs that sued for harassment even though a judge had ruled there was no merit to their cases. In Denver, UAW members of the parts division at Cat, had wage cuts so deep many qualified for food stamps and the York PA plant moved to North Carolina and opened non-union.

Early in the dispute in nineties Cat sued the UAW over the issue of paying UAW Reps on the shop floor, the backbone of “jointism” or “team concept”. A loss in that suit could have resulted in dismantling the cooperative program costing thousands of UAW jobs in the Auto industry. An unfavorable ruling, that it is in fact company unionism, could have destroyed the system the UAW uses to maintain control of its members, how they vote and control of convention results. Many UAW members believe that fear was a deciding factor in caving in to Cat’s demands. In effect, that system allows the continuing lavish lifestyle of UAW leaders, no matter how poor their performance and no matter how many concessions UAW members are forced to accept.

Recently, Caterpillar sued the State Of Illinois over an upgrade of the state’s anti-strikebreaker law signed by Governor Rod Blagojevich. Finding the right judge these days is not that difficult. Like many unions today, UAW leadership has sought remedy in the courts instead of fighting with the only power they have; their members. In spite of nearly a billion dollars in their treasury, the UAW has caved in all over the country and now every employer expects a “me too” contract ladened with outsourcing and concessions. The spin-offs at Ford and GM at Delphi and Visteon parts divisions and others in the auto industry agreed to by a pathetic UAW leadership, has whet the appetite of every UAW employer. The UAW has agreed to thousands of jobs being out-sourced and huge concessions in wages and benefits. In Indiana last year, current UAW President, Ron Gettlefinger,[Getfingered as he is disaffectionately referred to by disgruntled members] agreed to a whopping ten dollar an hour pay cut. To force the members to accept the cuts, some were offered a chance to move to another plant and were not allowed to vote on the concessions. No doubt the cuts will follow those who moved. In the UAW today there are thousands of UAW Gypsies who have moved from plant to plant because of job losses, many of them agreed to by the UAW. Throughout the mid-west Caterpillar has dozens of non-union parts suppliers who have taken UAW jobs. The UAW is literally bleeding to death in membership, but refuse to mount an offensive, opting instead, to cooperate with employers and strong-arming their own members. Promises by the industry to allow unfettered organizing in outsourced jobs have fallen far short of expectations. Organizing by the UAW in other areas has been dismal at best.

As if the Yokich leadership wasn’t bad enough, Gettlefinger has lowered the bar. As Regional Director for the UAW in Louisville KY, Gettlefinger took the low road. After authorizing a strike at Accuride Wheel in Henderson KY and vowing to stand by his members for “as long as it takes”, the UAW suspended strike benefits for 650 members in an effort to force the members to accept the most devastating contract in UAW history. The company was notified several days before Local 2036 leadership of the suspension. After a spirited picket of Solidarity House [UAW headquarters in Detroit] by activists and supporters from across the country, the UAW reinstated strike benefits, but ultimately decertified the local and left Accuride to be run by scabs. Members who hade paid dues for decades were sold into despair. Imagine how this betrayal affected the members and their families who were guilty of no more than supporting the union they fought for?

All Cat has to do is lay patiently, thumping its tail, for the UAW mouse with only its head in the hole and its ass hanging out a mile, to make the decision to give up the flesh for the greater corporate good. That decision is coming from what must be the most laughable union leadership in labor history. We may see a little street theater in the next few weeks, but there will be no fight, and UAW members will again pay the price for corporate unionism.

Mike Griffin runs the War Zone Education Foundation in Decatur, Illinois. He can be reached at: