Friday, August 17, 2012

Here's Hoping I'm Wrong ... The Caterpillar Strike Example ... Union Rules

Striking Caterpillar employees at the company's Joliet, Illinois facility are voting this morning on whether to accept the company's offer and return to work.

I hope I'm wrong but I expect the offer will be rejected by the membership and that the strike will continue indefinitely.

{NOTE: If the contract is in fact approved, which I don't anticipate, please consider the rest of this post as of general information about international unions and their local affiliates, as well as their relationship with companies and how, in the end, employees and union members are the ones hurt by all this gamesmanship between the various levels of union leadership.}

Initially, I believed that ratification would be a mere formality when the news broke that a  settlement had been reached between the company and the international union negotiators.

Mistakenly I assumed "the fix" was in and that union leadership, including the local union leaders, would recommend approval of the offer.  That was not to be the case, and I was wrong as local union leaders, led by their President Tim O'Brien, immediately came out in strong opposition to contract ratification.

My guess is that neither Cat management nor the IAM international union leadership saw this coming and clearly didn't expect this to happen. Thus, the news "blackout" pending the membership vote today lasted about ten minutes, and Mr. O'Brien took the spotlight, even though both parties had agreed not to comment publicly pending today's membership vote. The lid was off, in other words, and unexpectedly.

At that point, the international IAM lead negotiator, Mr. Jones, declared that the IAM would present the proposal to the membership without a recommendation that the members approve or reject the contract. The international would refrain from taking a strong position recommending ratification, and local and vocal rabble rousers would be free to take over the meeting and urge rejection of the company's offer. Emotions would interfere with rational choice about the livelihoods of people, in other words.

All that said, it's my understanding that Mr. Jones of the international union had first approached the company in an effort to settle the lengthy labor dispute.  But after the local's vocal and very public opposition to the settlement agreement, the international union was now in no position to get the membership's backing.

As for Caterpillar, the company therefore now has no reason to believe anything union leaders may say in the future, and that's why the outlook is dismal for reaching a settlement anytime soon, if ever.

To wit, there is obviously considerable disarray, dissension and even conflict among the various union officials. The international has probably lost any interest in  helping its local leadership team resolve the strike issues now. And assuming the contract is voted down this morning, Cat's management will probably have little to say other than they aren't in any hurry to return to the negotiating table.

Since it takes two to have a fight, and since Cat isn't in any mood to fight, things will be at a stalemate indefinitely as Cat stays away from offering anything new for the union's consideration.

And the IAM international will stay away from making any serious effort to get Mr. O'Brien and the rest of the local leadership under control. Thus, it looks like it could be a very, very long time to get this most unfortunate strike situation resolved.

To repeat, the IAM international has probably had its fill of Mr. O'Brien and local union leadership. Similarly, Cat management has probably had it with the IAM. Meanwhile, the ones who matter --- the employees --- probably have had it --- period.

I'm guessing that there will be no happy ending in Joliet. And that the IAM won't rush to the aid of its local. Nor will Caterpillar management rush to sweeten its last offer. The employees will be left holding the empty bag.

In sum, Mr. O'Brien and the local union leadership, after a brief pyrrhic or hollow and short lived victory celebration, will earn the distrust and enmity of many of their fellow union 'brothers' and therefore be in no position to bring about a positive resolution to the dispute.

What will happen down the road I obviously don't know. What I do foresee, however, is that things will only get worse for the striking employees from this point forward.

And that's a shame.

Thanks. Bob.

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