From a purely soul-less capitalistic standpoint, the Caterpillar labor standoff certainly makes sense. The company famous for their bulldozers reached a labor impasse with their Joliet workers four months ago, which led to the still-ongoing strike, reports the Chicago Tribune. It seems the lesson that other companies should be gleaning from the dispute is this: you're doing it wrong!
Caterpillar made record profits last year and are on pace to do the same this year. Nonetheless, this past winter, they took a hard line in labor negotiations with a Canadian locomotive manufacturing factory that they had recently acquired. At the same time, they had opened up a new factory in the U.S., giving them extra leverage over the powerless proletariat.
They then turned their attention to Joliet. Despite the immense profits, the local hydraulic equipment manufacturing factory employees are being asked to agree to a six-year wage freeze, cutbacks and elimination of pensions, and increased health insurance premiums.
Greedy? Yes. Brilliant in a capitalistic sense? Yes. Inhumane? Quite possibly.
The lesson they are teaching the rest of the U.S. manufacturing industries is this: deal from a position of strength. Caterpillar is being proactive and forcing favorable terms while they have the ability to replace workers, factories, and lost revenue. Most companies wait until they are losing money, or in bankruptcy, before they take a hard line in labor negotiations. At that point, the troubled company cannot sustain an extended labor dispute, unless the file for bankruptcy.
So far, 780 workers that have gone on strike at Joliet. Over the last four months, 70 have crossed the picket lines. Between those 70 and scabs, the factory has remained open. Meanwhile, striking employees are subsisting on $150 per week in union stipends. Care to predict who will cave first?
Does federal labor law provide any hope for the Joliet employees? Not really. The law doe prohibit certain unfair labor practices, such as interfering with the right to establish or belong to a union, firing employees for their union status, or outright refusal to negotiate with the representatives of employees.
One possible legal strategy for the union might be to argue that Caterpillar isn't negotiating in good faith, as they are taking an arguably unreasonable and uncompromising stance in boom times. Negotiation doesn't mean make a low-ball offer and refuse to budge. However, litigation arguing a lack of good faith is an uncertain path that sounds more like a hail-Mary pass than a sure thing.
So, while some may despise Caterpillar execs for their lack of compassion, their further destruction of the middle-class, and their general uncompromising hard-line negotiations, one does have to respect the hustle. One also has to wonder if the lessons from their recent dealings will lead to more companies engaging in such practices in collective bargaining disputes.
- Consult a Chicago Employment Law Attorney (FindLaw)
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