THE media has created the public perception that the United Auto Workers suffered a crushing defeat at the hands of Caterpillar. In reality, the company's executives have no cause for jubilation. Indeed, the end of the strike has left them with some vexing problems that did not exist during the 17-month walkout. Consider these facts:
Caterpillar is legally obligated, under National Labor Relations Board rules, to restore some 9,000 strikers to their former jobs, because this was a strike over the company's unfair labor practices. The company was obviously better off when the strikers were on the outside doing picket duty, where they couldn't interfere with the newly-organized work force or the production system.
The UAW is now relieved of paying $300 a week to each striker, an expenditure which until now has drained tens of millions from the union treasury. It can use the savings to develop other tactics to fight Cat.
The company has to comply with a Labor Board order to discharge the scabs it had hired to replace the strikers. The removal of the scabs will create an embarrassment for management, since many strike-breakers had expected to have permanent jobs. It will also mean at least a temporary dislocation of the production process.
More than 80 percent of the strikers rejected the company's proposed six-year contract, which is, if anything, worse than the one they were offered before the strike began. There will be considerable anger and bitterness among the returning workers, which Cat managers will have to deal with.
There are more than 170 unfair labor practice complaints against Caterpillar which the UAW has filed with the NLRB, dating as far back as November 1992. A great many of these cases, which deal with a variety of efforts by Cat management to harass union activists in its work force, have yet to be resolved. The Board's decisions will affect working conditions on the shop floor when strikers are back at work.
Cat managers have asserted that the rehiring of strikers may take weeks, possibly until the end of the year. The union position is that strikers must be restored to the company payroll as of December 3, the date when the UAW agreed to have its members return to work "unconditionally."
A Labor Board ruling states that "back pay shall begin from a date five days after the date on which each unfair labor striker unconditionally offers to return to work." There are at least two precedent-setting Labor Board cases in which the five-day limit on rehiring was imposed on a company when workers involved in an unfair labor practice strike agreed to return "unconditionally" to their jobs: Drug Package Company, Inc. of O'Fallon, Mo. vs. Local 505 Graphic Communications International Union (94LLRM1570) and S&E; Enterprises, Inc., Las Vegas, Nevada vs. Steelworkers (146LLRM1044).
Caterpillar executives obviously hope to stretch out the period of rehiring as long as possible to "reorient" the former strikers to their new conditions of employment, including rules about behavior that will result in disciplinary action. However, the company risks having to give back pay to any striker who is not rehired by December 10. The company has begun rehiring its former employees, but it is not clear yet at what pace this is being done.
Undoubtedly, the tension on the shop floor will be considerably greater in the coming weeks when the strikers are back on their assigned jobs than during the long months when they were trudging the picket lines. Caterpillar will not have an easy task to make the necessary adjustments to create a spirit of cooperation within its largely unhappy work force. If wise counsel prevails among Cat managers, they will decide to build a harmonious relationship with their employees based on mutual respect instead of the past practice of intimidation and disciplinary action. The company has been sufficiently profitable that it can afford to be generous with its employees by offering them a fair contract.
A few friendly purrs on the part of Cat will receive a welcome response from its employees and their union.