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Dissent Emerges in Union’s Stand Against Caterpillar

December 1, 1991

EAST PEORIA, Ill. (AP) _ Solidarity was the word during the first three weeks of the United Auto Workers’ strike against Caterpillar assembly plants here and in Decatur.

But with 9,800 workers now idled by the Nov. 3 walkout and subsequent lockout and layoffs, some workers this week are openly questioning the wisdom of the move. The two sides are not talking and no talks are scheduled.

″Everybody on the picket line agrees. The way the union and the company handled this contract is bad,″ said Jerry Huffman, 51, who has 25 years at Caterpillar and is on strike from the East Peoria assembly plant.

Resentment is aimed at the chief bargainers: Caterpillar’s Jerry Brust and the UAW’s Bill Casstevens.

″Last night I walked my first picket duty,″ Richard A. Robison, a 26-year Caterpillar employee, said in a letter in Saturday’s editions of The Journal Star of Peoria. ″I was anxious to learn the feelings of my fellow union brothers in regard to the current negotiations.

″The consensus ... is neither pro-company nor pro-union. The attitude that I saw was contempt for both.″

″In short, we the workers and union members feel betrayed and entrapped by both sides in the dispute,″ wrote Robison.

Union leaders deny that letters like Robison’s and others surfacing at union offices are evidence of widespread dissension.

″There’s guys saying ‘throw Casstevens and Brust out.’ It’s not Casstevens’ fault,″ said Jerry Brown, president of UAW Local 974 in East Peoria, the largest of Caterpillar’s unions with about 9,000 members.

″Nobody likes a strike. We’re not happy about it. But our people are pretty solid in support.″

Brown suggested a few UAW members were unduly influenced by a Caterpillar campaign of full-page newspaper ads and direct mailings to union members promoting the company’s position and goals.

The company continues to call the union back to the bargaining table and insists it abandon its demand the new contract be patterned after a three-year agreement recently signed with Deere & Co. It defends the mailings and public relations efforts as attempts to inform workers.

″We believe our efforts are having an effect,″ said Caterpillar spokesman Bill Lane.

In a telephone interview, Robison, 44, said most of his colleagues would work without a pay raise and would be willing - but not happy - to pay proposed medical premiums.

The big issue to him and others is job security and protecting pension benefits, since many in the work force are nearing early retirement at 30 years of service.

Other union members contacted on the picket line and by telephone shared Robison’s position.

″I think the old contract is fine,″ said Bill Harmon, 48, who has 25 years at Caterpillar and is locked out of his job as a pipe fitter.

″Most guys feel the same way. They want to be working. We’re a little concerned about being replaced or about Caterpillar moving factories south.″

Caterpillar has offered cost-of-living pay increases to all employees in each of the next three years and proposed selective wage increases to its most skilled employees. The union is demanding larger pay increases, greater job security and pension benefits. The average blue collar salary is $35,000.

The UAW represents 16,000 workers in Illinois, Pennsylvania, Colorado and Tennessee.

Several workers standing around a fire barrel recalled the 205-day UAW strike against Caterpillar in 1982-83 as a major defeat which could be repeated this time.

″We were never able to recoup all the money we lost in that strike,″ Huffman said.

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