Workers Narrowly Approve Contract From Caterpillar

In the end, the United Auto Workers could not find much to boast about except survival.

After 6-1/2 years of fighting Caterpillar Inc., the union accepted a contract with the equipment maker that raises wages up to 4 percent, promises job security and improves retirement benefits.

But it also OK’d lower wages for new workers, limits on overtime pay, more use of temporary workers and the dismissal of some 400 federal labor charges.

Only 54 percent of the union members voting nationwide supported the contract.

“What are we going to do if they hire 1,000 people next week at $10 an hour and start displacing us? We have no protection against that,” said John Backes, a 24-year Caterpillar worker. “It’s time for us to unite and try to rebuild this union.”

Union leaders had little to say about the six-year contract, devoting attention to promises they’ll strengthen the union by bringing new workers into the fold.

“Our local was part of a major campaign by a multinational corporation to become union-free,” said George Boze, vice president of East Peoria’s Local 974.

“The real victory in this struggle is the fact that after 6-1/2 years, the membership was able to stay together well enough that the company had to come back to the table and bargain.”

UAW President Stephen Yokich said the it offers “economic progress, security for the future and, perhaps above all, justice and dignity.”

There were two long strikes during the dispute, but Caterpillar managed to force the union back to work both times, primarily by hiring replacement workers and luring union members across the picket lines.

Wayne Zimmerman, a Caterpillar vice president and chief negotiator, said this contract is better than the one Caterpillar initially sought in 1991. And he gave little indication that the bitterness of the dispute will change the company’s approach during future contract negotiations.

“I don’t think the fact that we didn’t have a labor contract caused the company to learn anything,” he said.

The Peoria-based company achieved record profits despite the turmoil. It made almost $1.7 billion last year.

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