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Everyone loses in long labor war.

The easy part was deciding that the dispute between Peoria's dominant employer, Caterpillar Inc., and its largest union, United Auto Workers, was not a private issue but a public one.

The hard part was figuring out what to say.

What could we write that would be honest? What could we write that would be wise? What could we say that would be helpful?

How could we minimize the damage - to the company and all of its employees, to their families, to small-business owners and car salesmen, schoolteachers, and all the others in a community of 350,000 owing at least a third of its jobs directly or indirectly to Caterpillar?

Where did the newspaper fit into that mix? Would conflicts arise between our own dependence on the local economy, on customers and advertisers bitterly divided on the issues being raised, and the interests of the community as our editorial board saw them?

Fortunately, we didn't have to come up with all the answers all at once. We made most of them up as we went along. We still are - nearly four years and more than 150 editorials after initially observing that the company and the union were staking out positions that might prove all but impossible to reconcile.

Our first hard decision came when the strike that began in November 1991 lingered into 1992. No negotiations were taking place. No progress was being made. No resolution was in sight. Would this strike do to Caterpillar what an earlier one had done to International Harvester? Would Cat pack up its factories and move out of town? What would our advice be, and to whom would we direct it?

On that point, our publisher's direction was clear. We would not take sides. The newspaper would lose credibility (and subscribers) if it came to be regarded as a company paper or a union paper, and long-term damage could be severe. Beyond that, what useful purpose would taking sides serve? Did we really think that Caterpillar or the UAW would take our advice?

Neutrality would be our policy.

Neutral, not silent

Being neutral goes against the grain of every editorial writer. We're paid to express opinions; how could we not have them on the biggest issue facing the community?

Well, we've been neutral, but don't get me wrong. Neutrality on the larger issues - whether to accept or reject the company's final offer, whether to picket or cross, whether to replace workers, whether the company or the union had the better case - did not keep us from speaking up regularly, and critically, on all sorts of issues in the context of the dispute.

We pointed out that Caterpillar was unlikely to locate new product lines in a plant where it was at war with the union. We warned that the company had a lot to lose, in terms of productivity and image, if it couldn't figure out how to get along with its workers.

We warned that for a long time after this battle ended, Peoria would bear scars that would get in the way of luring new businesses to town.

We editorialized against legislation outlawing permanent replacement of strikers and for health-care reform, health insurance being one major strike issue. We said Caterpillar gave the wrong message when it granted big salary increases to its executives while seeking two-tiered wages for some of its union members.

In April 1992, when the company threatened to replace strikers, we suggested that the local bar association and labor/management council make available a pool of consultants to talk to workers about their options. We condemned those who vandalized the homes of those who crossed picket lines; violence being a genuine fear, we prayed in print that cool heads would prevail.

Again and again, we begged the federal mediator to try to bring the parties together.

We criticized the UAW for trying to get Caterpillar kicked out of a local group dedicated to improving labor/management relations and blasted its president Owen Bieber for comments seeming to suggest that the UAW would seek to put Cat out of business. We urged the union to let its workers vote on the contract and discussed running our own straw poll of union members. We decided we could not police it and were uncomfortable with the role anyway.

We wrote about the strike every chance we had, if for no other reason that to keep the issue alive: Christmas, Labor Day, Thanksgiving, 100 days into the strike, when it became the second longest in history and eventually the longest. Five years of New Year's resolutions dealt with Caterpillar.

We wrote about the issue that some people claimed we were writing about the issue too much. We sought out op-ed pieces. We devoted entire editorial pages to letters from readers backing the company or the union or - quite often - blasting both.

So how neutral were we? Not very, in the minds of upwards of 300 readers who cancelled their subscriptions because they thought our editorials or our news coverage was biased one way or the other.

Not very, in the minds of some union members who thought our editorials leaned in the company's direction. The subscription boycott they threatened never materialized, but last March about 150 UAW members picketed the newspaper building, alleging that our coverage was unfair. "Freedom of the press should not be bought," said one of the signs, and it reflected a message often heard on my telephone and in my mail: Caterpillar executives were dictating the content of our editorials.

How they would have liked to!

For a long time last year, company officials repeatedly complained about our editorial neutrality. For the community's sake, we should take the company's side, they argued. They even proposed what we might say.

Inside the company, in conversations, and in at least one memo, Caterpillar blasted us for refusing to go along. In August 1994, angry about our news coverage and our editorials, company officials quit talking to our reporters and our editorial writers. If we want a response to a question we might - we have no assurance - get it in writing.

At the same time, the company cancelled a series of ads it had been running in the newspaper. Caterpillar advertising has not returned.

The editorial that apparently contributed to this decision was critical of a media tour the company had organized to demonstrate that it was manufacturing products in spite of the strike. It was a highly controlled tour; reporters were not permitted to talk to anyone except company officials, who were present throughout.

We wrote that we did not doubt the claim that the company was making tractors but the tour had left a bad taste. The editorial led with this line: "Remember way back when the leaders of communist countries would take western journalists on those propaganda tours?" Then we went on to say that the plant tour "reminds us of those days."

We didn't call Caterpillar or anyone who worked there a Communist, but we might as well have. Too many readers never got past the word and the emotions it evoked.

For us, it was a lesson that writing that is good and powerful can also be counterproductive. The effect was not what we intended, and we - who had been preaching restraint - were accused of ignoring our own advice.

I doubt we'll ever use the work "communist" casually in another editorial. Using it in this context was a mistake.

When readers ask whom we back in this battle, we say we stand with the community.

Caterpillar represents its stockholders. The union represents its members here and elsewhere. We represent Peoria.

That may be partly an editorial writer's rationalization, but it's defensible. Each member of our editorial board has a commitment to Peoria - a home, a family, a job, a stake in our employee-owned newspaper. We make no apologies for standing up for the town.

Genuine fear for the future of this community and its people led us to a series of editorials published in the spring of 1994 departing broadly from the norm.

When reasoning doesn't work

The union seemed about to strike again, and we sensed that this could be "the big one" Peorians feared. If people knew what was at stake, then maybe they would be wise enough to change course. But how does a newspaper get that message across when reasoning hasn't worked? With people stories.

We called the series "Who's at stake," and that's exactly what we wrote about - the little people in our community caught up in this battle of the giants.

We spent two weeks of intense effort to find one person with the courage to talk to us. His name was Dick Rogers, and he'd worked at Cat plants for 21 years. His 12-year-old son had lost a leg to cancer and had not yet conquered this disease.

Dick Rogers cherished his union membership but could not hate the company that had paid more than $500,000 to keep his child alive, that had granted every leave of absence he'd requested to be with his sick boy. He'd never crossed a picket line before, but he figured he'd do it next time around. Had to.

For four months, we visited with UAW members and their children and spouses, with people who would cross and people who wouldn't and people who couldn't make up their minds, with laid-off members recently recalled to work, with potential retirees, with white collar workers, with employees of a Cat supplier whose business went up and down with the company's fortunes.

The editorials read much like features but always ended on the same note: In the minds of Cat and UAW leaders, the dispute might be about differing philosophies of labor and employment. In the minds of the rest of us, the strike was about the lives of our friends and our families. Time to quit putting these lives at stake.

The series was recognized in state and national editorial-writing contests. More important, it won an audience. It served as text for a few Sunday school classes.

People on all sides of the issue seemed to coalesce around the idea that the community had too much at stake to self-destruct. Would this do it? How we hoped!

The UAW struck Caterpillar before the series ended.

Little impact

As I write this, the strike is in its 206th day, one day longer than any previous work stoppage in company history. Of course, we have marked it editorially.

Knowing that nothing we have said has altered the course of events is incredibly frustrating. If you ever want to feel irrelevant, try writing about labor and management when neither's primary allegiance is to the readers of your paper.

Would things have been different had we told Caterpillar to quit acting like the Simon Legree of the business world, or said the UAW should say thanks and sign the contract? I think not, but I can't say for sure.

I can tell you that the longer this strike goes on, the more this position feels right.

It felt right in April 1992, when Caterpillar threatened to replace every striker and many of them turned to the newspaper for information and counsel because they did not trust what the company or the union said. It felt right that month when I hosted what I came to call "talk newspaper" - lengthy morning conversations with callers, union members mostly, many of them terribly anguished. They'd pick up the phone to consult with somebody - anybody - about whether to go back to work or to stay home.

In the seventh month of the present strike, it still feels right. For one thing, my own feelings and those of my staff about what the workers or the company should do continue to evolve.

At times I have thought the union wholly unreasonable; at times, the company. At times I have thought the community's best interest would be served by the union's signing the offer; at times, I've been close to buying the union's argument that the job guarantees sought by the union would best protect Peoria from more job losses.

Whose side would we take? Even now, I'm not sure.

I will say - and have said in print - that both company and union are at fault. In the big battle between the corporate giant and the union powerhouse over the future of the American workplace, big goals have kept little steps from taking place. Little steps will be necessary if they are to find each other anywhere near the middle.

The UAW and Caterpillar were to have met on January 20, for the first time in seven months.

"Meet. Talk. Give. Settle the strike," we wrote yesterday.

What else is there to say?

NCEW member Barbara Mantz Drake is editorial page editor for The Journal Star in Peoria, Ill.
COPYRIGHT 1995 National Conference of Editorial Writers
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1995, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:coverage of the United Auto Workers strike at Caterpillar Inc.'s plant in Peoria, IL
Author:Drake, Barbara Mantz
Publication:The Masthead
Date:Mar 22, 1995
Previous Article:The nightmare of the fealty-challenged.
Next Article:Freedom, order, and the right to speak.

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