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The Inside Strategy: Less Work and More Play at Cat : Union: Workers stung by strike's bitter end try tactic of T-shirts, balloons and antics. Bosses answer with firings.

THE STRIKE AT CATERPILLAR. The Waning Power of Unions. One in a five-part series

May 16, 1995|BARRY BEARAK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In truth, while "work-to-rule" had only spotty results, the factories did suffer from the more general malaise of bad morale. Even more than usual, people did not want to be at work. Tension was boredom's new companion.

Jerry Holloman managed a building in the Mossville engine division, near Peoria. Sometimes the job was becoming a pain in the butt, he said. Which buttons were OK and which ones were not? Some guy wore one that read: "Please Don't Tell My Mother I Work at Caterpillar. She Thinks I Play Piano at a Whorehouse."

As part of its campaign, the UAW was filing a ton of grievances and safety violations. The paperwork was aggravating. At shift changes, dozens of the UAW's more spirited advocates would march in formation through the narrow corridors, bellowing, "We are union!" The racket was thunderous.

Holloman knew who the "troublemakers" were. By his reckoning, they were the same people who had always caused problems, excessive absenteeism and such. The UAW had long been their guardian angel. "If you're a goldbrick and a malcontent, it's nice to hide behind the union rules," he said.

Two Perspectives

At Caterpillar, as at most companies, there was a rigid line between labor and management. Inevitably, the two sides saw the world from opposing angles.

There were managers who said the union could change an eager worker into a lazy slug, and union men who said the company could turn a good worker into an arrogant s.o.b. by making him a manager. Bosses complained that workers showed no pride and took no initiative, and workers complained that bosses made them ship out substandard junk in order to meet production quotas. Workers thought long years of service merited special treatment, while managers wondered about the wisdom of seniority rights: Why favor people simply because they persist?

Bosses earned their stripes by improving the output, but there was not much in it for the worker, and some of that was the union's own doing. Factory work traditionally involved regimentation, specific tasks for specific people. To better protect workers laboring under such a system, the union over the years sought to refine the company's rules and make them explicit. There were hard-and-fast regulations for assigning jobs, making promotions, paying wages.

In contract form, these protections for the group were won at the price of individual rewards based on merit. Union solidarity meant job security, not job competition; workers stuck together, no one trying to get ahead of the rest. Wages were the same for the fast as the slow--and a worker's best course was often a middle one, neither shirking nor making others look bad.

Manufacturing under this restrained system, the company emphasized discipline and not independence. The workday was designed much like a school day, with a short lunch period and timed breaks instead of a recess. Student and teacher, worker and foreman: Workers made the comparison often. They joked about goofing off. They complained about those "kiss-asses" whom the plant managers called by their first name.

Caterpillar was surely doing something right to be so profitable for so long, but it was not a workplace for the disciples of W. Edwards Deming and the other gurus of the post-industrial renaissance. Many machines required computer skills, but workers were not motivated to come up with ways to make them run better. There was no single-minded devotion to innovation, no thirst for the worker's creative input, no emphasis on labor-management cooperation.

Those things would have required mutual trust and respect.

Working Together

Oddly enough, the company and the union had begun a program for cooperation in 1986. It was called ESP, short for the Employee Satisfaction Process. Its goal was to break down that customary wall between workers and their bosses.

Experts and federal commissions have hailed such programs of mutual trust as the wave of the future in labor relations. Teamwork is in; butting heads is out. The UAW has been something of an apostle of cooperation in its auto worker agreements with Saturn and the GM-Toyota joint venture in Fremont, Calif.

At Caterpillar, the union was more skeptical. The program was voluntary, and some local leaders were opposed. Larry Solomon, now president of the Decatur, Ill., local, called it the Easily Suckered People program. He warned that it was just a sly way for Cat to sap the workers' collective power.

"Any time you tell workers to cooperate with the company, you're telling them it's OK to reduce their loyalty to the union," he said. "The company knows which employees to pat on the head while they're peeing on their leg."

But at the Aurora, Ill., plant, most UAW members were willing to give it a try. They went to weekly meetings with management. At first, the groups merely suggested creature comforts--soda machines and the like--but then they began coming up with ideas for every aspect of the manufacturing process.

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