The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

United States:
The Caterpillar Strike

Feb 10, 1996

On December 3, 1995, the leadership of the UAW (United Automobile, Aerospace and Agricultural Implement Workers) announced that striking UAW members working at seven Caterpillar plants had rejected a company proposal for a new contract, a proposal whose provisions were significantly worse than those strikers had been working under when they went out on strike. But then the UAW added a second announcement, which not so long ago would have seemed inconceivable: the UAW s Central Bargaining Committee for Caterpillar had "recessed" the strike at Caterpillar and told the company that UAW members were available "immediately and unconditionally" for a return to work. Striking workers were told they should stop all strike activities, go home and wait for Caterpillar to call them.

The UAW had surrendered, bringing to an end a strike which had started 17 and a half months earlier, in June of 1994.

Caterpillar was quick to announce that it could not immediately bring the strikers back and that, moreover, it would never bring back any of the 150 workers, mostly union activists, whom it had discharged. Overturning these discharges and hundreds of other disciplinary actions had been the aim of this strike. When Caterpillar did get around to calling workers back to work, it was under the same terms the workers had just rejected.

One of those terms was a new list of work rules which the company immediately began to enforce. Among these rules were provisions threatening to discharge anyone who exhibited "animosity" toward management or any "line- crosser". For example, a worker who didn t shake the hand of a scab fast enough, was suspended for "shunning" a "line-crosser." Workers were warned that other infractions could also bring about discharge: use of the word "scab", for example, or any unpleasant word or look directed against management or against "line-crossers." Within the first few days, an additional number of workers were suspended or fired.

As if to punctuate the defeat, the strike at Staley, which had gone on for two-and-a-half years, has since collapsed, as had the strike at Bridgestone-Firestone, which had also gone on for months. The strike at Staley was led by a small union, the Allied Industrial Workers, which merged with the Paperworkers union in the middle of the strike. The strike at Bridgestone-Firestone was led by the United Rubber Workers, which merged with the Steelworkers union in the middle of this strike. For a period, these three strikes, which happened to intersect in Southern Illinois, especially in Decatur, where all three companies had plants, engaged some of the strongest unions in the country. The toughness of the battle had brought the union movement to call Southern Illinois "A War Zone" and the union activists, who fanned out from Decatur spreading news of their strikes, "Road Warriors."

Unfortunately, it is a war that the unions almost everywhere are losing.

If These Strikes Couldn t Win, Which One Can?

The cause of this defeat was not lack of determination by the workers on strike.

This was the second bitter strike at Caterpillar in the last four years. Between the two strikes, the vast majority of the workers had remained out for a total of almost two years - despite the fact that the company ran production with replacements, threatening the strikers explicitly or implicitly with the permanent loss of their jobs if they didn t return. In the recent strike, out of 14,000 workers, only 4,000 crossed the picket line. In the period between the two strikes, the local unions had mobilized workers to carry out an in-plant campaign. In fact, it was this campaign which had resulted in most of the firings which prompted the second strike.

As usual in long, difficult strikes, most workers looked for some other income to keep going. But many were also active on a regular basis, circling the country, carrying news of their strike to other UAW locals and to other unions. Many were engaged on a daily basis, putting out propaganda for the strike, organizing rallies, maintaining the pickets, carrying their protests to Caterpillar headquarters, etc.

As for the union apparatus, it threw in a great deal of resources. At the local level, it s clear that the union officers were ready to lead a strike, to mobilize their members to carry out different campaigns, and, as the discipline and firings show, put themselves in jeopardy. At the national level, the UAW devoted large sums of money and militant resources to the strike. In the second strike it increased strike pay from the $100 it had been to $300 a week, plus coverage of the strikers medical insurance. It asked other locals to raise money for the strikers, to send food and otherwise give support. It sent in many of the top officers plus some organizers, some of whom were there almost all the time. It organized rallies and demonstrations, asking other UAW locals to send delegations to the rallies. It pursued the case with the NLRB and in the courts, filing almost 200 complaints against Caterpillar. In all of this, it got the backing of and resources from the AFL-CIO.

The UAW did about as much as a union could do - that is, within the framework wherein unions have carried out strikes in this country during the past 40 years or so, a framework which assumes that struggles are carried out between one company and its own workers, or even on a narrower basis than that.

During this strike, for example, the UAW did not call out several other Caterpillar plants organized by the UAW because their contracts had not yet expired or had recently been negotiated and signed. Other plants which provide parts for Caterpillar, many of them also organized by the UAW, were allowed to go on working, first because they belonged to other companies, and second because they too had current contracts in force.

If the UAW was not ready to ask its own members connected with Caterpillar to join the fight, it certainly was not about to ask members of other unions. And other unions, for all the information they circulated about the strike and the money they contributed to it, did not join it. For example, not only did the IAM (International Association of Machinists) sign a new contract with Caterpillar while the strike was going on; it even proudly reported in the AFL-CIO News that it had managed to get Caterpillar to sign a new contract six months early. Teamsters continued to haul parts in and finished tractors and engines out of the Caterpillar plants.

One Boss, One Group of Workers

There are, of course, all sorts of legal prohibitions against spreading strikes beyond the immediate group of workers involved by the problem. Those prohibitions reside both in the contracts and in state and federal laws, most of which were passed in the early years of the McCarthy period at a time when the union movement still maintained habits of, at least, supporting each other s strikes with "sympathy strikes".

However the union movement got its present habits, the fact remains that for more than 40 years, the unions have carried out their struggles within very narrowly circumscribed limits. When they wanted to make a fight, the unions knew they had to show the company that they were ready to cost the company a significant part of its profits and even to make the company fear it might lose out in the competition being played between capitalist firms for market share and future profits. Thus, strikes were carried out essentially as contests to see which side could outlast the other, that is, which side could cost the other side enough, in economic terms, to make it give in first.

Strikes, almost necessarily, were long. Of course, the bourgeoisie could tolerate long strikes because they seldom, no matter their length, were of the kind to have any big impact on the overall economy, given the size of the country and the dispersion of organized labor. Even less were they of the type that might spill over into a broader social movement. Obviously, some strikes which might have choked off other parts of the economy or served as an encouragement to other workers to break wage guidelines, prompted the state to intervene for economic reasons. (Truman, for example, "militarized" the railroads in 1950 on the first day of the Korean war, when railroad unions were threatening a strike. In 1952, he "nationalized" the steel industry, using "nationalization" as a pretext to make the strike illegal.) But for the most part, strikes were left to run their course.

In the years from 1950 through the mid-1970s, the average length of strikes was three and a half weeks. And there were some much longer: the 57-day railroad strike in 1955; the 114-day steel strike of 1959; the 100-day GM strike of 1971.

Thus workers prepared for the possibility of long strikes. Given the contractual framework, which defined when and under what conditions strikes were "legal", everyone knew months ahead, in fact from the moment the previous contract was signed, when the next strike might happen.Workers put some money aside, paid up their bills, made arrangements to get a temporary or part-time job. The unions themselves regularly put aside a certain amount of their dues money into a strike fund, a kind of insurance policy to be drawn on by workers when they did go out on strike. During a strike, if it dragged on, they might turn to the rest of their membership or to other unions for additional financial support, including to replenish their own strike fund.

The one thing the unions hardly ever did was try to spread the strike beyond the category first involved, whether of one part of an industry, or one company, or even one plant. Of course, there have been exceptions in the post-war period. But in general, the rules that the UAW respected in the Caterpillar strike have long been the rules of the game.

For most of this time these rules of the game seemed to work for organized labor - at least if we look at the real increase in their standard of living, including the extension of a broad range of so-called "benefits", that is, those social acquisitions which in general might be granted in other countries more broadly and through means of the state budgets, but in the U.S. were granted, sector by sector, via union contracts. (And obviously, large sections of the working class not organized, those in smaller shops or in peripheral industries did not share at nearly the same level in the general prosperity.) Nonetheless, things improved for the working class, and improved measurably.

So Why Not Now?

The question is, why aren t the same rules working now? The unions point to Reagan s breaking of the air traffic controllers strike in 1981 as the turning point. Having given the controllers an ultimatum to return, Reagan fired them when they didn t. They all lost their jobs, something which seemed unthinkable at the time.

Yes, it was a turning point. But that still begs the issue. The question is, what has changed? What not only prompted Reagan, but also allowed him to take that step in 1981?

There are several critical differences between the period we are living through today and the long post-war period when the standard of living of the working class increased.

First, the decades after World War II were decades of prosperity for American imperialism, as it raked in the fruits of what it had taken control of, directly or indirectly, as a result of the war. The American bourgeoisie could afford to give some crumbs - of course, the unions had to fight for them. But if they did, they had a good chance of winning something.

Moreover, it was a period when the American bourgeoisie needed its own working class to be lined up behind it, as it ventured much further afield in pursuit of imperialist aims. The Cold War, the rebellions in the underdeveloped countries, the Korean War - all of these cataclysms required that the working class not challenge the capitalist class too much at home. Of course, the bourgeoisie might have used repression to impose its order - which it did, in part, as it attempted to sweep the militants of the 1930s out of the union movement - but the repression was, in fact, much more efficient, precisely because the new leaders imposed on the unions were those who were given credit for the improving standard of living. Thus, Walter Reuther who played little role in the formation of the UAW, and who came in on the winds of an anti-communist purge, has come to represent the power of the UAW to gain improvements, the very symbol of American labor at its most powerful.

With the growing black movement flooding into the streets at home, with the necessity of going to war once again, this time in Viet Nam, the bourgeoisie took once again the same tack: even while throwing its repressive forces against the black movement, it opened its pockets still more during the 60s. The union movement was in fact the beneficiary of the black movement and the Vietnamese struggle.

The working class itself was not in a bad position to make a fight. Its morale was relatively high from having successfully carried out other struggles.

That is why it can appear that the policy of the unions gave the working class prospects, at least for almost thirty years after the end of World War II. But the fact that the unions carried on their fights in the narrowest fashion possible meant that even in that period, when the situation was favorable, the working class did not get everything which it could have. Nor did the unions prepare the working class for what was going to come, not only because they did not give it any inkling that the period of expansion might not be permanent, but also because they didn t give it any experience in the kind of fight that must be made in a period like the current one.

Organized Labor at an Impasse

Today, the political situation is different in every way, allowing the bourgeoisie to launch a general attack against the working class. The bourgeoisie no longer has to worry as much about lining the working class up behind its foreign policy adventures. And the crisis, with its high level of unemployment, has lessened the morale of the working class, its willingness to respond when brought under attack. Moreover, the capitalists themselves had a bigger need to attack, especially in the late '70s and most of the '80s: to repair their falling profit margins, they needed to reduce the standard of living of the working class.

Of course, the situation feeds on itself, just as the earlier period of "good times" for the working class seemed to feed on itself. The more the working class has given up in the form of lowered wages, job losses and concessions in work rules, the less it seems to have the morale and the spirit required to meet the new attacks. At the same time, the companies seem to be continuing this broad ranging attack simply because the current situation lets them. Look at Caterpillar, which is part of one of the major American trusts. It is the largest producer of agricultural implements and earth-moving equipment in the world. And it is one of the U.S. s most profitable companies. It provoked both these strikes simply because it gauged that in the current situation it could get away with it. The first strike, in fact, started when Caterpillar refused to accept the contract that its less profitable competitors had already accepted.

In the current situation, there is no reason for the companies to go on respecting the old conventions. More and more, when strikes start, they go on running production, hiring scabs, giving the strikers ultimatums, threatening those who won t come right back with the loss of their jobs. Thus, many companies are now making the cost for striking the loss, not of several months wages, but of the workers jobs. The corporations are turning more and more to companies which specialize in breaking strikes, providing everything from advice on how to do it, to armed goons, to replacement workers, to public relations campaigns.

There have been signs, here and there, that part of the labor movement is trying to break out of this impasse. For a few months, some unions or at least parts of some unions seemed ready to involve other workers directly in the the Detroit newspaper strike. They were not talking about extending it, but at least they were calling on other workers to join the strike activities to reinforce it.

But confronted by newspaper threats to have the RICO statutes (those directed against "organized crime") applied to their organizations, the other unions seem to have retreated from their earlier willingness to break out of the straitjacket in which the union movement has been imprisoned. If they are to have any prospects at all, not only will they have to pick up where they left off, they will have to widen their efforts.

The most common response from the unions, confronting the current situation, has been to avoid strikes, whenever and wherever possible. Last year, the number of strikes hit its lowest point since 1944, that is, during World War II, when the union movement was still respecting the no-strike pledge. In 1974, the most recent high point, there were 424 strikes that involved at least 1,000 workers. Three years later, in 1977, there were 298; by 1980, three years later still, there were only 187. From that point until today, the number has decreased every single year, with the exception of three small fluctuations. In 1995, there were only 31 strikes, that is, only 7% of the number of strikes in 1974.

Of course, it s true, faced with a generalized attack by the ruling class, one group of workers cannot really defend itself. And that is what we are facing today: a generalized attack by the ruling class; carried out by every corporation, every company; carried out by the state apparatus at every level, all conspiring to reduce the standard of living of the whole working class.

In the face of this kind of attack, the only response which will allow the working class to defend itself is a general fight at all levels: in all the workplaces; against the state apparatus; wherever and however the working class finds itself under attack. In front of the ruling class, which already is mobilized as a class, the working class also has to take the field as a class. Of course, it may require a number of battles, some of which may be defeated, others which may make only very partial gains, before the working class gains the experience and the confidence in itself really to mobilize all its forces.

This kind of fight doesn t depend on the unions alone. But what does depend on them is what they propose to the working class. What kind of program do the unions put in front of the working class, what objectives do they give the workers when they struggle, what kind of fight do they propose? Obviously not every fight, not even most fights, can develop into a generalized struggle. But the unions could carry out every fight within that perspective.

If they did so, they would not automatically prevent more defeats, but they could prepare the working class for the kind of fights which it must make.