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Wall of Silence May Mean An End Soon to Long Strike

Caterpillar and United Auto Workers union are said to renew contacts over a contract dispute that prompted a year-long walkout

FOR workers and executives vexed by one of the country's biggest and bitterest labor disputes, the timeworn saw "silence is golden" today rings loud and true.

After years of slinging recriminations, Caterpillar Inc. and the United Auto Workers are suddenly mum. Neither side is publicly confirming reports that UAW President Stephen Yokich is trying to wind down a contract dispute that has prompted a year-long walkout by 9,000 company workers. At the same time, neither side is denying the reports either. The heavy silence highlights a paradox typical in delicate high-stakes disputes between labor and management: "The more things look encouraging, the more the two sides are unlikely to want to talk about it," says a top-level labor source. On condition of anonymity, he confirmed that the two sides have recently made new contacts.

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The strike so far has affirmed the advantage United States management holds over unions at a time when it can increasingly rely on plentiful and comparatively cheap foreign labor, labor experts say.

Moreover, the apparent initial steps toward resolving the strike show how a union today profits under a leadership that confronts management with a good measure of flexibility, the experts say.

Mr. Yokich, who was elected union president on June 14, has reportedly dropped the insistence by his predecessor that the UAW and Caterpillar meet on neutral ground and with the help of federal mediators. The conciliatory gesture appears to remove the first prickly points in a wrangle so acrimonious that the two sides even disagree on the nub of their disagreement.

The UAW says it walked out over some 150 allegations of unfair labor practices. Caterpillar says the strike stems from failed union efforts to coerce the company into pattern bargaining. Caterpillar has not operated with a union contract since September 1991.

Both Caterpillar and the UAW can find good news in the apparent flexibility of Yokich, labor experts say.

First, it suggests that Caterpillar has so far prevailed in a potentially devastating strike. Since workers walked out in June 1994, Caterpillar has logged record profits during four consecutive quarters.

The company has flourished, in part, by relying more on production at its 18 factories overseas. It also anticipated the strike, patching together a work force of white-collar employees, UAW members who crossed the picket line, and temporary workers.

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"There's virtually no impact from the strike - we've continued to operate, we have not missed a beat ever since the strike began," says Keith Butterfield, spokesperson for Caterpillar, which is based in Peoria, Ill. (For the period from March to May, however, inventories rose significantly and orders declined moderately.)

Second, the hints at conciliation suggest that Yokich understands that unions will rebound sooner from their weakest period since the 1920s through a pragmatic approach toward management. The era of stubborn head-on antagonism toward management is over, labor experts say.

"What can unions do in these times but pursue a policy of realism?" asks Raymond Hilgert, professor of management and industrial relations at Washington University's business school in St. Louis. Since 1979, UAW membership has fallen 47 percent, to some 800,000 workers.

"The union leadership must maintain a strong posture but know when to bend," according to Professor Hilgert. Indeed, during 39 years at the UAW, Yokich has mixed hard, sometimes fiery resolve with a behind-the-scenes flexibilty.

"The UAW has always been a pretty strong adversarial union, and anyone considered a patsy for management wouldn't survive," Hilgert says. Still, "it sounds like Yokich is very pragmatic."

For example, as the UAW official in charge of relations with General Motors Corporation, Yokich last year authorized five strikes in an effort aimed largely at forcing the automaker to hire more workers. Yokich won.

Behind closed doors with management, however, Yokich has shown a penchant for the give-and-take that has helped the automakers carve away vast swathes of fat and shake out inefficiency.

Since 1989, Yokich has stood by as the hourly work force at GM shrunk by 28 percent, even though contract terms allowed him to insist on new hiring. Earlier, he pursued the same cooperative course while heading UAW negotiations with Ford.

Today, in dealing with Caterpillar, Yokich can offer the olive branch at less risk than his predecessors because he is not personally identified with their unyielding hard-line stance.

Moreover, he can expect unusually high levels of support from the UAW grass roots because of the brief "honeymoon" period following his recent election, labor experts say.

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