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LABOR : Caterpillar Strike Ends With a Whimper for Union Movement : The months on the picket line came to naught for thousands of members of the UAW. The surrender leaves workers in a vulnerable position.

December 05, 1995|BARRY BEARAK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The UAW went on strike, only to cave in after five months under the threat of permanent replacements. Following that was an "in-plant campaign," in which the UAW encouraged workers to goof off on the job. Then there was the second strike, a rebellion caused by the firing or suspension of the militants who did the goofing off.

This second strike had an important distinction to it. Because it was called over unfair labor practices instead of contract issues, by law the company could not hire permanent replacements. The union faithful thought it finally had the company outfoxed. Instead, Cat mobilized an army of managers and office workers and underemployed skilled temporaries.

They were aided in the factories by 4,000 disgruntled UAW line-crossers, among them Jim Mangan, who watched the new workers quickly take to their tasks.

"In many cases, a trained monkey can do these jobs, and I include myself in that. I am smart enough to realize just how valuable I am not," he said.

In October, with the election of new leadership, the AFL-CIO took up a new battle cry: Organize, organize, organize. Some $20 million has been set aside to bring new members into union ranks and re-energize the labor movement.

However grand that sum, it is puny beside the $200 million to $300 million the UAW has spent on strike pay in the Cat struggle. "Look at that money--and all the UAW could think to do was tell their members to walk around in a circle with a picket sign on their shoulder," said New York labor organizer Ray Rogers.

Many in labor--indeed, many within the UAW itself--criticize the union for its failure to pressure Caterpillar with other tactics, such as asking other unions to withdraw funds from banks that do business with the company.

"Back in the 1980s, the UAW had a vaunted research department, but the entire staff apparatus is ossified now, and it's one of the least creative around," said a Chicago labor consultant who has closely watched the strike.

The UAW international itself has new leadership. Elected in June, they have upcoming negotiations with the Big Three auto makers to worry about. The strike at Cat was an expensive nuisance. They were eager to settle.

In triumph, however, the company's stance has only grown tougher. After a year with its managers and engineers in the plants, Cat claims to have learned so many ways to improve productivity that it needs 2,000 fewer workers.

Caterpillar will now set its own timetable for accepting the return of the strikers.

The full homecoming of the prodigals may take months as the company attempts to remix strikers and line-crossers without spontaneous combustion.

Unwelcome for now are 150 or so UAW members who were fired for alleged strike-related misconduct. The union had vowed never to go back without its wounded troops, but the handwriting on the wall is more pragmatic now.

It is a bad time to be an ex-striker, with the union so defeated and the company so hostile. Frank Dorsey, a toolmaker with 23 years at Cat, is returning to work, but he does not intend to stay too long.

"The further I get from Caterpillar, the better off I'll be," he said. "Even if it means a pay loss, I need to get away from this mess. You know, we employees have been like the children in a dysfunctional family.

"You know who the parents are? The company and the union, that's who."

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