EAST PEORIA, Ill. — It has come down to 50 nameless workers, 50 union members still locked out of their assembly line jobs after six years of strikes and employment without a contract.
The fate of the anonymous 50 is the bargaining chip that could either end the long-running war between the United Auto Workers and Caterpillar Inc.--the most costly American labor dispute of the last decade--or drive its combatants farther apart.
Jim Fisher, a silver-bearded plant maintenance man idled three years since he was fired by Caterpillar, might be one of those 50. No one who works in this riverfront lowland of factories and industrial towers knows who they are because of the company's insistence on choosing who returns. But Fisher, 51, one of the leaders of a union rank-and-file insurgency that scuttled a proposed agreement, is adamant that "this thing doesn't end until we all go back."
He stands on one side of a Solomonic dilemma that is dividing 13,000 union members here and at other Midwestern Caterpillar plants: Would they be willing to adopt a new contract and end years of financial and emotional hardships without resolving the fates of 50 of their fired colleagues?
"Workers are angry at the company, the union and each other," said Raymond Hilgert, a labor arbitrator and a professor of labor-management relations at Washington University in St. Louis. "It's the worst possible environment in which to try and approve a contract."
Until the Feb. 22 vote, it appeared that the two sides had surmounted a history of vengeful sparring and agreed on a contract that would bring almost all of Caterpillar's union workers back to the earthmoving equipment manufacturer's factories. Most Caterpillar workers had returned to assembly lines in 1995 without a contract.
The UAW first walked out on Caterpillar in November 1991 and stayed out five months until the company threatened to hire permanent replacements. Workers again went on strike in 1994 and remained on picket lines until December 1995, when UAW leaders rejected a company offer. As the years passed, more than 4,000 UAW members crossed the lines. Under the contract vetoed last month, those workers would have been granted an amnesty sparing them union dues and fines.
Over the same period, more than 200 UAW activists were fired by Caterpillar for offenses ranging from carrying explosives to fomenting work slowdowns. Fisher was terminated in February 1995 for passing out leaflets at a Caterpillar plant. He now spends most of his time shuttling between his home in nearby Pekin and the union hall here.
Nearly 160 UAW members fired for picket line turmoil and other strike-related activities remain out of work. All but 50 would have returned under the new contract and the fate of those left behind--still unidentified because Caterpillar insisted on the right to choose them--would have been left to independent arbitrators.
"We knew this was an important issue with some of the workers," Caterpillar spokeswoman Marsha Hausser said. "But we felt it had been appropriately addressed, and the union leadership agreed with us."
But a groundswell of defiant UAW rank-and-file voters, nearly 58%, rejected the pact, vowing that there would be no peace until the last 50 returned.
"I could have been back to work next week," said Harold Brown, 49, an idled machine tool worker from Caterpillar's Pontiac, Mich., plant who opposed the contract. "My daughter's in her second year of college, and I got bills up the wazoo. But I couldn't go back feeling guilty about my brothers who were still out there."
The defeat, union leaders and company officials said, has left the delicate negotiations teetering between the possibility of one more compromise and an estrangement that could provoke Caterpillar into trying to strip the union of its representation and the UAW to pursue millions of dollars in damage claims against the company.
"I hope we're too close to let it slip away now," said Jim Clingan, president of UAW Local 974, which represents more than 7,000 workers, Caterpillar's largest union shop. "But there's so much emotion and anger out there, it's hard to say where we are."
Clingan had staked his reputation on the contract proposal, telling his membership that the company had given ground since union leaders turned down the Caterpillar offer in 1995. "We felt that even those who weren't immediately going back would still get their day in court," Clingan said. But a majority of the membership "see it as all or nothing."
In the end, Clingan's local rejected the pact.
Discussions before the contract vote at the local's East Peoria headquarters degenerated into shouting matches between workers, a chaotic scene that Clingan and other union leaders now regret. Hoping that extra time to discuss the contract might help workers "see things more clearly," UAW officials had allowed a full week between the announcement of the deal and the vote.