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A Strike's Tread Marks

AS thousands of workers return to jobs at Caterpillar Inc. this week, the aftershocks of their five-month strike rumble on. Many harbor a deep resentment toward both the company that threatened to hire replacement workers and the union, the United Auto Workers (UAW), which relented last week under the pressure of that threat.

Without question, the Caterpillar strike has been a defeat for labor. The union was determined to hold out for an agreement that closely followed one reached earlier with Deere & Company. This strategy, called "pattern bargaining," has been a UAW mainstay. If the union lost it in the equipment industry, it could lose it in the much larger car industry too.

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Caterpillar just as resolutely refused to go along with a contract that lumped it with companies that are far less dependent on overseas sales. The company argues that its global competitiveness depends on flexibility in its dealings with labor.

To drive home the point, the firm opted for a pattern of its own, established back in 1981 when the Reagan administration fired striking air traffic controllers and hired permanent replacements. That extreme tactic, rare over the decades of labor's ascendancy, has become more common as union power has waned.

The union saw little alternative to allowing its members to return to work under Caterpillar's current offer while continuing its efforts to negotiate a better contract. In fact, the dollar amounts separating the company and the union are relatively insignificant. The philosophical confrontation over pattern bargaining caused the showdown, and the union, it appears, had to blink.

The company, however, is paying for its victory. An embittered work force - many of whose members feel they've been bulldozed - won't hasten the sought-after competitiveness. Caterpillar has a big job ahead in making its employees think of themselves, once again, as valued members of a team.

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