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UAW Approves Six-Year Contract With Caterpillar

By Christopher Wills,  Associated Press

PEORIA, Ill. — A deeply divided United Auto Workers union approved a new contract with Caterpillar Inc. on Sunday, deciding to end a 6 1/2-year contract battle and instead build strength for the future.

Just over 54 percent of the union workers voting approved the deal, the UAW said in a statement. The largest UAW local, East Peoria's Local 974, supported the contract 55 percent to 45 percent, officials said, and results were similar elsewhere. Only Decatur's Local 751 rejected it, 30 percent to 70 percent.

"The agreement represents economic progress, security for the future and, perhaps above all, justice and dignity," said UAW President Steven Yokich.

The contract covers roughly 13,000 Caterpillar workers, most of them at plants in Aurora, Decatur, East Peoria and Pontiac. It also covers smaller numbers in Pennsylvania, Colorado and Tennessee.

Wayne Zimmerman, Caterpillar's chief negotiator, said the company ended up with a better deal than the one it sought when the old deal expired in 1991. He added that there is no guarantee the company won't face the same problems when this contract expires April 1, 2004.

"I don't think the fact that we didn't have a labor contract caused the company to learn anything" as far as dealing with the union, said Zimmerman, Caterpillar's vice president. "We learned a little bit how to run our business better."

The contract offers raises and job security for workers who have endured years of strikes, legal battles and uncertainty. And it gives about 160 workers fired during the strike their jobs back, starting as early as March 30.

"I'm looking forward to it. It's been a long time" said George Boze, a Local 974 vice president and one of the fired workers who will return to work. "The real victory in this struggle is the fact that after 6 1/2 years, the membership was able to stay together well enough that the company had to come back to the table and bargain."

But the contract also contains many provisions that started the feud in the first place, including a two-tiered wage system and limits on overtime pay.

"What are we going to do if they hire 1,000 people next week at $10 an hour and start displacing us? We have no protection against that," said John Backes, a 24-year Caterpillar worker and former candidate for president of the Peoria-area local. "It's time for us to unite and try to rebuild this union."

The last time the union faced this question, a month ago, the members rejected the contract 58 percent to 42 percent. But that was when the company was refusing to re-hire some workers the union believes were fired illegally.

That was a sore spot with many union members, who considered the fate of the "illegally terminated" a matter of honor — especially when Caterpillar wanted the union to take back members who had abandoned UAW strikes.

So Caterpillar came back with an offer to re-hire all 160 of the disputed workers and arbitrate the cases of 200 others whose firings were not related to the contract battle.

The contract also lowers wages for new workers and gives the company greater power to limit overtime and use temporary workers. It introduces insurance co-payments for retirees. But current Caterpillar workers get raises and increased pension benefits, along with job security until 2004.

Union leaders said it was the best deal they could get and urged passage.

The UAW and Caterpillar have battled since their last contract expired Sept. 30, 1991. In essence, the union wanted to follow the pattern used in past contracts, but Caterpillar wanted more power to trim its work force, hold down pay and bring in temporary workers.

The dispute led to two long strikes, but Caterpillar managed to force the union back to work both times, primarily by hiring replacement workers and luring union members across the picket lines.

The Peoria-based company — the world's leading maker of earth-moving and construction equipment — has achieved record profits despite the years of turmoil. It made almost $1.7 billion last year.

Many workers say the dispute has permanently damaged their relationship with the company.

"It caused a lot of hard feelings and bitterness," said Larry Wilson Primm, one of the workers fired by Caterpillar. "My kids and my grandkids will never work at Caterpillar. They know what it's like."

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