Rally supports locked-out Caterpillar workers
Published Jan 28, 2012 11:00 AM
Four hundred and fifty members of Canadian Auto Workers Local 27 have been locked out by Caterpillar since Jan. 1. The lockout was the company’s response when workers rejected demands for an immediate pay cut from $35 to $16.50 an hour, major cuts in benefits and the gutting of the pension plan.
Caterpillar, number 44 on the Fortune 500 list of the wealthiest corporations, made a record $4 billion in profits last year and paid out a record $70 million to their seven top executives.
The locked-out workers are fighting back and they are not alone. A Jan. 21 support rally called by the Ontario Labor Federation drew 15,000 from across the province and beyond. “If Caterpillar wants a fight,” said OLF President Sid Ryan, “we’re ready to go.”
Workers from a broad cross section of public as well as private sector unions came out for the Caterpillar workers. Unions represented included the Steelworkers, the Canadian Union of Public Employees, the Canadian Union of Postal Workers, the Food and Commercial Workers, the Amalgamated Transit Union and the Federation of Secondary School Teachers of Ontario. Thousands of CAW members came from around the province, including 600 from Windsor.
The crowd cheered for the representative of Occupy London, which has been supporting the locked-out workers from day one. Local 27 President Tim Carrie thanked Occupy London for being on the picket lines, helping feed the picketers and setting up its tents outside the gates.
U.S. labor representatives included Roger Zaczyk, president of United Electrical and Machine Workers Local 506. UE Local 506 represents workers at the Erie, Pa., locomotive plant of General Electric. Zaczyk said GE tried to force concessions on the UE recently and he was in London to defend good jobs for all.
Caterpillar’s anti-union history
From its opening in 1949 until 2005, the Ontario, Canada, plant was part of the Electro-Motive Division of General Motors. In 2005, GM sold the distressed division to hedge funds Greenbriar Equity and Berkshire Partners for $200 million. They renamed it Electro-Motive Diesel and in five years cut the workforce from 1,650 to 450. Then, Caterpillar’s wholly-owned subsidiary, Progress Rail Services Corporation, bought EMD for $800 million with the support of Canadian Conservative prime minister, Stephen Harper.
Caterpillar, the world’s largest earthmoving equipment company, has a reputation for union busting. In the 1980s, the company began aggressively streamlining operations. By 1991, 30 percent of the workforce had been cut and only one-quarter of Caterpillar workers were still members of the United Auto Workers. That year, the company demanded concessions, including health benefit cuts and a two-tier pay scale. In November, the workers were walking picket lines.
The strike had widespread sympathy. Support rallies drew tens of thousands. The UAW-sponsored “Adopt-a-Striker” program raised $1 million. Caterpillar workers in apartheid South Africa stopped work for an hour in solidarity.
The UAW abruptly halted the strike after the company threatened to hire permanent replacements. Citing that threat as “Caterpillar’s trump card,” the New York Times proclaimed “management can bring even a union so mighty and rich as the United Automobile Workers to its knees.”
Inside the plants, workers remained militant and defiant, sporting pro-union t-shirts, hats, buttons and armbands and chanting at work — for which discipline was frequently meted out. There were eight wildcat strikes in the next two and a half years. In-plant “work-to-rule” slowdown tactics were employed with some success, but the company was intransigent. By June of 1994, the strike was on again.
Production continued with salaried employees and scabs, and in December 1995, the UAW suspended the second Caterpillar strike. Workers rejected a new, concessionary agreement by 80 percent. Working without a contract, workers were frequently disciplined for minor offenses. In 1998 — after a six-and-a-half-year fight — workers at Caterpillar reluctantly accepted a six-year contract. It was the first UAW contract with a permanent two-tier pay scale.
Aware of Caterpillar’s sordid history, workers at the Jan. 21 rally loudly chanted, “Not this time!” and they meant it.
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