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April 2004 • Vol 4, No. 4 •

UAW Strike Vote: What Does It Mean? Absolutely Nothing!

By Mike Griffin

The WarZone Foundation is an independent, non-profit labor education foundation dedicated to fighting for the rights of rank and file workers, organizing the unorganized, and educating the public on worker issues as well as issues concerning social and economic justice. The Preamble to the United Auto Workers’ Constitution states: “[The UAW has]an obligation to seek social and economic justice…. Essential to the UAW’s purpose is to afford the opportunity for workers to master their work environment; to achieve not only improvement in their economic status but, of equal importance, to gain from their labors a greater measure of dignity, of self fulfillment and self worth.”

The UAW is violating all that, and more: Article 12, section 14: “If and when a strike has been approved by the International Executive board, it shall be the duty of the International Executive Board to render all financial assistance to the members on strike consistent with the resources and responsibilities of the International Union.” [Re: Local 2036]

In a word, the UAW officialdom systematically violates the union’s Constitution.

Mike Griffin

Stories in the mainstream press highlighting the recent strike vote by UAW members at Caterpillar have offered fodder for the Industrial Relations Cannon, but underlying the hype lurks a grim reality; It Ain’t Gonna Happen! In decades of representation at Caterpillar, strikes have been plentiful and nearly every contract was secured as a result, but that is a bygone era when the UAW leaders had just enough leadership quality to listen to the demands of the rank and file. That too is a bygone era. UAW misleadership has digressed via “Quality Circles,” “Employee Involvement Programs” and “Partnerships” into a species that requires neither vertebrae nor tolerance for resistance. The simple fact is that UAW bureaucrats now view themselves as partners in helping the employers remain “competitive,” even if it means lowering the standard of living for its members and assisting the industry in wholesale slashing the member’s jobs; and it does. Even if it violates the preamble to the UAW Constitution, and it does!

The history of the UAW at Caterpillar has darkened in the last decade, in particular, the ill-fated strike in 1992. The UAW walked out without a battle plan and voluntarily returned when scabs and cowardly members gave Cat the edge by crossing picket lines. Skilled Trades Unions aided Cat performing maintenance on machinery allowing production to continue further weakening the strike. The dispute lasted six years before a concessionary contract was reached. The dispute began under the alleged leadership of Owen Beiber and concluded when Steve Yokich succeeded him and raised the white flag. The betrayal of the sacrifices of the members has left bitterness among members that will endure for generations.

Two issues continue to haunt the UAW at Cat, issues that were never wholly resolved. When the UAW struck in 1992, Caterpillar sued the UAW over having to pay UAW reps that served on the shop floor in their “partnership.” Had that suit been lost, it may have meant the end of thousands of pork-chop positions throughout the UAW. The auto industry uses them to keep members in line and the UAW uses them to control elections, votes, and the continuance of their lavish lifestyles, huge salaries and gracious perks. Is it company unionism in reality? I think so! The second issue involved more than 250 members who were discharged during the dispute, most of them illegally. Some never returned but the issue was dear enough to the membership that twice when the UAW misleadership tried to sell the contract, it was voted down.

At the 1995 AFL-CIO, after Yokich took the helm of the UAW, I was there with UAW Local 751 president, Larry Solomon, and many activists from Decatur. Yokich, when questioned by Decatur UAW members about settling without protecting the heroes who were fired by Cat, responded, “I am not going to hold up a contract for thousands of UAW members for a few hundred discharge cases.” Yokich got an earful prior to being rescued. While Local 751 in Decatur was smaller than 974 in Peoria, IL, the percentage of no-votes was high enough to twice turn down the contract until language was included to return most of the discharged members. That result was due to the efforts of Solomon even after he left office and rank and file members who hand-billed at the gates of Cat keeping them informed of what the UAW was trying to sell out.

The WarZone Foundation assisted their efforts until a contract was reached. In spite of 450 NLRB violations against Caterpillar, the UAW surrendered, dropping all the charges and allowed scabs to remain on the job. Caterpillar dropped their lawsuit. When workers returned, Cat and the scabs made the workplace a living hell for those who defied their haughty power. Cat closed the York, PA parts plant and moved it to North Carolina and lowered wages so low for parts workers that even UAW members in Denver, CO were eligible for food stamps. Caterpillar retirees suffered huge losses in benefits. During the Cat dispute, workers at John Deere suffered a concessionary settlement. Pattern Bargaining became a blueprint for poverty and defeat. The UAW publicly claimed victory in those disputes.

After the Cat struggle the UAW offered no resistance to the spin-offs of the parts divisions at Visteon and Delphi at Ford and General Motors and in fact they agreed to it. Those spin-offs devastated UAW wages and thousands of UAW members lost their jobs. The Cat parts division was a precursor of things to come. It would be easy to believe that Cat, Delphi and Visteon were all being secretly negotiated in tandem. They definitely were relative and the domino effect is at least suspicious.

In the time frame between Cat and the spin-offs of Delphi and Visteon, another significant struggle took place adding another domino in the destructive path taken by the UAW. In Henderson, Kentucky, more than 600 UAW members went on strike against Accuride Wheel. Even though the strike was sanctioned by the UAW, and the Regional Director from Louisville vowed to support the members “for as long as it takes,” betrayal was in the works. As a parts supplier, any real fight would be counter-productive to the direction the UAW was secretly negotiating with the industry. After a brief strike and voluntary return to work, Accuride locked out Local 2036. Within months the UAW would join forces with Accuride and undermine the Local’s efforts.

The UAW cancelled strike benefits for Local 2036, a move to force the Local to settle. Accuride wanted everything; much more than 2036 could afford to give. If 2036 succeeded, how could the UAW explain to other Locals why they were forced to give up what they had worked for all their lives, including their jobs? Billy Robinson, 2036 president and his members decided to fight back. The Workers Democracy Network, UAW Concern, the WarZone Foundation and activists from UAW New Directions organized a picket of Solidarity House, the UAW International Headquarters in Detroit. The embarrassment forced the UAW to restore benefits to put a positive face on the betrayal. More than a year later, after Local members refuse to accept a contract that would give scabs the majority of jobs, the UAW decertified Local 2036 and crawled away from Henderson, Kentucky.

Yokich stepped down as head of the UAW due to a terminal illness, but UAW members continue to work under a cloud. Stepping up to International President is Ronald Gettlefinger or “Get-Fingered,” as he is disaffectionately referred to by UAW activists. Gettlefinger was the Regional Director in charge of the Accuride Local 2036. Gettlefinger’s short record of business union betrayal and concession bargaining nearly pales in contrast to the damage inflicted by Yokich. In Indiana, Gettlefinger agreed to a contract that slashed wages by ten dollars per hour.

Caterpillar has slowly divested itself in Illinois. Thousands of jobs have been out-sourced (scab sourced) to small parts suppliers and many have been moved to Dixie, where union is a dirty word and Corporate Carpetbaggers are held in high esteem. Decatur Cat workers numbered more than five thousand in their hey-day. Today, less than 1600 remain. Cat is back in the courts working their magic. Federal Judge Joe McDade ruled in Cat’s favor restricting States Attorneys in seven counties where Cat operates from enforcing an anti-scab law protecting workers from being replaced by professional strikebreakers. The “right judge” apparently has the right to ignore the law.

The “Circus” is on between Caterpillar and the UAW but it amounts to little more than street theater. The UAW under the misleadership of Gettlefinger is not going to fight for anything and certainly not an employer who defeated the UAW so easily and spent the last six years of a sell-out contract rubbing their nose in it.

The future looks bleak for UAW members at Caterpillar. It is difficult to determine which is the most threatening, Cat and their deep pockets or a UAW bureaucracy who refuses to engage the enemy every single time. Strike? I seriously doubt it!





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