The Dreadful Caterpillar Strike

Not that anyone -- least of all American factory workers over the last three decades -- needs to be reminded that corporations have little regard for the private lives of working people, the recent International Association of Machinists (IAM) strike against the Caterpillar plant in Joliet, Illinois, removes any lingering doubts.

Apparently, Caterpillar saw these negotiations as an opportunity to stick it to their workers, once and for all. What Caterpillar effectively said to the IAM was this: No matter how healthy we are as a company, no matter how profitable we become, and no matter how much cold, hard cash we manage to rake in, we never, ever, under any conditions, will share one more nickel with the hourly workforce than is absolutely, positively necessary.

It was announced Wednesday (Aug. 15) that IAM district leadership (as opposed to local leadership, directly answerable to the rank-and-file) had reached a tentative agreement with Caterpillar management which, if ratified, would have ended the 15-week strike (approximately 780 workers went out on May 1).

According to reports, the company's LBF (last, best and final offer) was very close to the concession-laden LBF that precipitated the strike in the first place and resulted in the membership spending 15 long, agonizing weeks on the bricks, drawing only $150 a week in strike benefits. Among other things, the contract called for a staggering six-year freeze on wages and benefits -- this from a company making billions of dollars in profits.

Not only was the wage freeze being offered with a straight face, it was being presented as one of those "If you don't like it, you can rot in Hell" propositions. It's true. The company indicated that if the union didn't play ball, they were prepared to fire everybody and take their chances with a brand new workforce. Although there was widespread resentment of the offer, the membership, by a narrow margin, voted on Friday to accept it. In truth, they had little choice. You can only remain on bricks so long. Any longer, and a "strike" turns into a "siege."

Last winter, Caterpillar revealed its dark side. Appealing to that wildly misleading wage statistic known as "fair market," Caterpillar insisted that the 450 workers at its London, Ontario, plant take a whopping 55-percent wage cut. When the workers balked (and who wouldn't?), the company locked them out. And when the membership, who viewed these tactics as a form of economic extortion, demonstrated that they were unwilling to roll over, Caterpillar shut down the entire factory and moved away. Period. No more jobs.

Caterpillar is doing spectacularly well financially. Profits are at a record high and forecasts for the future are rosy. Moreover, management is so confident and comfortable being in the driver's seat, they didn't even try cosmetically to cook the books for negotiating purposes. Caterpillar executives were more than willing to admit that business is booming. In fact, they bragged about it.

Last year the company earned a record $4.9 billion in profits, and expects to come in even higher this year. But, alas, they also vowed that none of that increase -- none of that marvelous windfall - -was going to end up in the pockets of the people who actually did the work. The way they see it, why would you give people more money than you have to? Only a fool would pay more than necessary.

Adding insult to injury, Caterpillar executives are clinging to the fiction that they have no choice but to freeze wages because their pay scale is already higher than the "fair market." Of course, the insanely bitter irony here is that today's "fair market" wage is a grossly misleading statistic -- the tragic result of a concerted, two-decades long assault on American earnings.

Which is why the middle-class is shrinking so alarmingly. It's not unemployment that is killing the middle-class; it's the depletion of jobs that pay a decent wage. While bottom-line fundamentalists like Caterpillar proudly see themselves as benefactors to their stockholders, what they are, in fact, is subverters of the American Dream. And if labor unions can't put the brakes on this thing, who can?

David Macaray, a Los Angeles playwright and author ("It's Never Been Easy: Essays on Modern Labor"), was a former labor union rep. He can be reached at