Are we watching the American labor movement die at Caterpillar?

While I don’t generally make it a practice to steal posts outright, in their entirety, from other sites, I just read something on Metafilter that I want to share with you. It concerns the busting of the machinists’ union at Caterpillar, and I really doubt whether I could say it any better. Here’s the post, entitled “Kicking Labor While You’re Up,” as written by someone calling herself moammargaret.

Caterpillar, after record profits, squeezes its union for a six-year wage and pension freeze and increased insurance contributions – not because it has to, but because it can. As the machinists’ union enters its fourth month on strike, the company says it’s getting along just fine with temps and union workers who have crossed the picket line. Private-sector union membership is now at an all-time low of 6.9%. Even as calls to remedy America’s income inequality grow from Occupy and other movements, nobody in power is helping. The Democratic Party’s ship has long since sailed. (previously)

As for the question that I posed in the title of this post, I don’t think that the American labor movement is truly at its end. I think labor will eventually reemerge as a force to be reckoned with. I just think it’s going to take a while. Eventually, though, all of the fights that our great grandparents lived though, and, in some cases, died as a result of, are going to be fought again. It’s unfortunate that we let it come to this, but I suppose that’s the way it goes. It’s the cyclical nature of human existence. I’m just hoping that we’re as successful against drones, and today’s high-tech security apparatus, as we were against the industrialists of old, and the Pinkertons that did their bidding.

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  1. Edward
    Posted July 25, 2012 at 5:58 am | Permalink

    I suspect the battles of the past, as bloody as they were, will look like a walk in the park compared to what’s in our future. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration at all to say that that regaining the ground that we’ve already lost is going to cost thousands of lives.

  2. Posted July 25, 2012 at 7:43 am | Permalink

    The Caterpillar labor situation is a microcosm of why the labor movement has failed in this country. The Machinist which are on strike at Joliet basically scabbed on the Peoria, Decatur and Pennsylvania UAW workers who fought a 4 (+) year battle with the company in the 90’s. That is why Caterpillar has some of its facilities represented by the Machinist instead of the UAW (I grew up near Decatur, and the workers there would walk out at the drop of a hat in the 70’s) Those Ill and Penn workers had the shit beat out of them while the Machinist in Joliet worked the entire time. They managed to hold onto there union–but not because of anything these fellow workers at Joliet did to help them. This division of workers into competing unions has been one of the chief causes of labor’s down fall. By the way another long strike by the UAW is occurring at Navistar (which bought International Harvester).

    Prior to the passage of the National Labor Relations Act, private sector unions (there were no public sector unions to speak of) only accounted for about 5% of workers. The plutocrats have just about succeeded in returning us to the 30’s. Next year when they get their “Grand Bargain” on social security and medicare, our situation will not be much different than my grand parents had it in the 30’s.

    On another, but some what related note, I wonder why we have no celebrations of the 150 anniversary’s of our crushing the plutocrat slave owning rebellion. No celebrations of our virtuous armies triumphing over the evil slave owners who were out to destroy our country. Why do you suppose the capitalist have not commodified these events for our consumption. Just so us local folks remember, our boys from EMU (then the Normal school) comprised the most decorated unit in US military history. In one battle after another against the slave owing rebels, our young men demonstrated bravery to the extent that this unit contains more medal of honor recipients than any other unit in history. They understood what solidarity meant.

    We need to support the Joliet workers, but we also need to educate ourselves to what “an injury to one is an injury to all” actually means.

  3. Demetrius
    Posted July 25, 2012 at 9:34 am | Permalink

    So here we have a company that is enjoying record sales — and record profits — yet has decided to try to force its workers to accept steep pay cuts and pay more for health insurance.

    Meanwhile, we have an allegedly Democratic President who is running around the country seeking re-election, giving speech after speech about how we need to “save the middle class.”

    Hmmm …

  4. Topher
    Posted July 25, 2012 at 9:42 am | Permalink

    It will take fighting to get labor unions back, but it will happen. Many people don’t realize what unions initially got the working and middle class. Once their lunches and breaks are taken away, and they are working 80 hours a week for a 30k salary with few to no benefits, people will finally start to get pissed.

  5. josh
    Posted July 25, 2012 at 9:48 am | Permalink

    The unions are part of the problem. Until the conservative trade unions die, labor loses.

  6. anonymous
    Posted July 25, 2012 at 10:01 am | Permalink

    Once the Teachers Union is killed, the Democratic party is dead.

  7. Posted July 25, 2012 at 10:45 am | Permalink

    That’s fine…but let’s have all of the things that labor got us die too, starting with maternity leave. I want to see women crap out their kids and then get their ass back to Walmart the next day. No more 8 hour days, no more lunch breaks, no more bathroom breaks, no more weekends, and please let’s get rid of the child labor laws. Like Topher said, let’s get 80 hour weeks for $30k (hell, let’s do $20k) as the norm. Can’t have it both ways, my low income but vote Republican friends….

  8. Posted July 25, 2012 at 10:48 am | Permalink

    Ok, I shared this on my Facebook. I will copy the hilarious comments from my conservative friends here later on.

  9. Dan
    Posted July 25, 2012 at 11:03 am | Permalink

    If only 6.9% of the private workers in this country are unionized, why do you guys have such a doom and gloom attitude about the loss of unions. 93.1% of the private working force is managing to not crap out babies and get to work the next day. Most have vacation and health care and employer matched retirement funds. You never hear about people at Google or Microsoft crying that they get paid minimum wage by tyrannical CEOs.

    Modern society (modernity!) allows us to not be forced to work in the local coal mine at age 13. We have choices and companies want to attract the best workers. If they pay like shit, the best workers wont work there.

  10. kjc
    Posted July 25, 2012 at 11:14 am | Permalink

    oh i happen to know people who worked for Google in terrible low paying jobs, with high turnover and unfair working conditions. not at the downtown office though. some kind of local factory of digitization. don’t ask me more details cuz i don’t remember them. but i did think wow, google, paying shit and treating people like crap. i didn’t know that.

    it’s all about who you know and where you look i guess.

  11. Demetrius
    Posted July 25, 2012 at 1:12 pm | Permalink

    @ Dan

    Many non-union companies that treat their workers relatively decently do so only because they want to prevent attempts by their workers to organize. That’s why, as the power of unions (and the percentage of unionized workers) has declined over the past few decades, there has been a corresponding erosion of salary, benefits and job security throughout the economy.

    While there is no doubt that companies like Microsoft and Google (that rely on highly-educated, highly-skilled workers) aren’t likely to start paying their employees minimum wage. Problem is … the majority of American workers are not highly-skilled or highly-educated. For most of them, wages and working conditions have been on a downward spiral for a long, long time — driving down the standard, and quality, of life for everyone.

    Many of the things that modern workers (even many non-union ones) take for granted: paid vacations and sick days, overtime pay, etc., came about because of individual union pressure — along with political pressure on the part of unions, collectively. Once unions (or the threat of unions) are finally gone, these “niceties” will disappear faster than you can say “bottom line.”

  12. meta proxy
    Posted July 25, 2012 at 3:49 pm | Permalink

    “Today, the banksters took a heavy blow. Audit the Fed passed the US House. John Dingell sided with the bankers and voted no. Now the Senate is trying to stop it. Harry Ried said it will not come up for a vote. Time to let Debbie Stabenow – (202) 224-4822 and Carl Levin (202) 224-6221 know that we expect them protect the American people not the banksters.”

  13. lorie thom
    Posted July 26, 2012 at 8:00 am | Permalink

    What we may not remember is that Cat sent its own white collar engineers into the plants to make Cat products for the 92 and 94 stikes. There were HUGE improvements in those plants in the time the engineers were there. Process, quality, material handling, productcion even EHS – all things that the UAW fought in one way or another before the 92 strike.

    Those results provided the business case for Caterpillar’s hard-line stance (and its Southern “right to work only” Strategy that has been the hallmark of its relationship with labor unions ever since. Cat now had the internal reporting proving that the UAW was not a partner. It was, in fact, in the way. And profits have imporved ever since. btw…so have production and quality and the rates of innovation.

  14. lorie thom
    Posted July 26, 2012 at 8:07 am | Permalink

    Is it OK for a company to make huge profits, give its executives a huge bonus and freeze the prodution worker’s pay…if that was what was negotiated, it sucks but that is the contract.

    My question is what if people could go to another plant make better money – what if Cat cut its labor wages and people left to go work for Navistar or Case or Deere or GM etc. What if the business case was there to pay decently for better labor – what would that look like?

    I don’t know what the looks like from a union perspective – how to allow that kind of movement. But I can’t ignore that the labor contracts don’t allow for that kind of movement and workers a bit hamstrung by them.

  15. Posted July 26, 2012 at 12:57 pm | Permalink

    Oh Dan! With the labor surplus, you think people just wont (sic) work there? Tell that to my teacher friends who were forced to take jobs at shitty charter schools because there are no public school jobs. Or tell that to my waitress friend who had to take unpaid time off after having a baby (and was honestly lucky to keep the job). If you gotta eat (or drink, in my case), you gotta work somewhere.

    And personally, I’m really tired of the privileged response of “then don’t work there!1!!11!!” It is too easy to run away from the problem instead of trying to fix it.

  16. Dan
    Posted July 26, 2012 at 1:54 pm | Permalink


    That wasnt really my point. My point was that a successful company generally wants quality workers. A company that refuses to pay workers a competitive wage/benefits is not going to attract quality workers. Sure in down times, workers sacrifice and take what they can get, but that works itself out in the long run.

    If a charter school can only high slackers and shit teachers, eventually they will lose their sponsorship and shut down. It happens a lot, actually. If the “business” side people want to stay in business, they know they have to pay a competitive wage to hire quality employees.

  17. tony johnston
    Posted August 11, 2012 at 8:33 am | Permalink

    7/11/11 what a nightmare. caterpillar took over their new toy underground mining equipment in pulaski va. we’re at the so called bargining table with the message we don’t like you or need you. after reading the article in the washington post 8/4/12 edition they don’t hide it. i can’t believe this is americans treating americans like this. greed is not a word to them it’s a lifestyle. our shop has no big fancy perks like a pension plan or severance package. if we try to form a relationship we’re told no thanks we can’t trust you. in our shop supervision is paid anywhere 25% to40% more than the floor. we have almost a 1 to 1 ratio hourly to salary. 34 years on the job i’ve never seen a company do like this . as a union officer i’m not angry just hurt that barely getting by is not enough for them all i can hope for is maybe they can rethink what they are doing it’s not a game it’s life

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