CATERPILLAR Inc. and organized labor are engaged in a dispute of
such ferocity it could color worker-management relations at other
United States manufacturing companies, labor experts say.
Some 14,000 members of the United Auto Workers (UAW) have gone
on strike at seven plants in three states since June 21, asserting
that Caterpillar is guilty of unfair labor practices. Caterpillar
says the strike is the result of a longstanding contract dispute.
The company is the world's largest maker of construction machinery,
with 38,000 US employees.
"In labor relations, we haven't had a dispute this bitter for
many years," says Raymond Hilgert, professor of industrial
relations at Washington University's business school in St. Louis
Some experts in labor-management relations say the outcome of
the rift will indicate whether organized labor can curtail its
steady decline in power over recent decades. Labor leaders believe
that "if the UAW at Caterpillar goes down, then the labor movement
in general is weakened another notch," Dr. Hilgert says. "They
see it as a very, very important part of the national picture."
Other experts disagree, saying the wrangle is unique and offers
limited insight into national trends.
Still, they all concur that the dispute offers a potentially
influential gauge of the power of a national union to defeat a
recalcitrant management in the 1990s. If the UAW convinces federal
officials and the courts that Caterpillar has mistreated labor,
then the company will likely be compelled to pay workers tens of
millions of dollars in compensation.
Management says the UAW does not want to acknowlege that the
walkout is prompted by a contract dispute over wages and benefits
because then Caterpillar could hire permanent replacement workers.
In strikes over allegations of unfair labor practices, federal law
prohibits hiring permanent replacements.
A good part of the workers' resentment in the current walkout
stems from Caterpillar's humiliating defeat of the UAW in 1992. In
April of that year, the company quashed a 163-day strike by
threatening to hire permanent replacements. Since then, labor has
grudgingly worked under a six-year contract that management
imposed. Workers have staged nine brief wildcat strikes at several
factories since last fall.
The breach has come at a critical time for both labor and
management. After a long, hard recession, there is high demand for
many of Caterpillar's diesel engines, heavy construction equipment,
and other products. In the past several months, the company has
expanded its world market share for many products and has watched
its profits surge. …