Expert: Court decisions put strikers on wrong foot
June 1, 2012 6:06PM
Updated: July 6, 2012 10:51AM
Union machinists who are on strike at the Caterpillar Inc. plant in Joliet have drawn a line in the sand.
It’s the first strike at the plant since 1986. About 780 workers are out of work and manning picket lines along Route 6.
What they are doing is serious business, said Chris Rhomberg, a Fordham University sociology professor who studies “urban social movements” and wrote “The Broken Table” about the Detroit newspaper strike of the late 1990s.
“The number of strikes has drastically declined over the years,” he said. “It’s hazardous for a union to go on strike. It doesn’t mean you can’t strike, but it does take a lot of strategic planning.”
I called Fordham to try to shed light on the strike situation. People keep asking me if I think Caterpillar will close the plant, but it seems unlikely to me after a tour there on Friday.
Instead, a different fate might await the workers, Rhomberg said. In recent decades, companies have won enough court victories to be able to hire permanent replacements.
The Joliet Caterpillar plant has its temporary contingency force in place. Company officials wouldn’t say if or when they’d consider hiring permanent replacement workers.
The court victories have emboldened companies with union workforces to have a negotiating attitude of take it or leave it, Rhomberg said.
“Companies generally want to set their own terms without any real negotiations,” he said.
That leaves unions two options: accept the terms or strike.
“For the machinists (in Joliet) to strike, it must be a very extreme situation for them,” he said.
The employer’s right to hire permanent replacement workers dates back to the Supreme Court’s Mackay’s decision in 1938, Rhomberg said. But it didn’t really come into play until more recent labor struggles, he said.
“When (President) Reagan fired the air traffic controllers, it sent the message that there was a new sheriff in town,” he said.
The Detroit newspaper workers Rhomberg wrote about in his book were on strike for more than five years. If they had won their case, the company would have owed them an estimated $100 million in back pay, Rhomberg said. They lost their case and their jobs.
I know many people are anti-union, especially in these days of high unemployment. But Rhomberg said times have changed, even for unions. And that could be a problem for America in the future, he said.
“The decline of the unions has contributed to the rise in economic inequality,” he said.