THE United Autoworkers has bowed to management and halted the nation's biggest strike just weeks after an AFL-CIO pledge to reverse the steady decline of American unions through stubborn militance.
The union leadership ended a toothless 17-month-long strike Sunday, even though UAW members rejected a contract proposed by Caterpillar Inc.
The end of the strike does not mean an end to more than four years of strife. The workers who rejected the contract will probably return to the factories more resentful than when they walked out June 21, 1994, say experts in industrial relations. The workers now may battle from within, through work slowdowns and other on-the-job disruptions.
Caterpillar, based in Peoria, Ill., undercut the strike by staffing factories with replacement workers, retirees, picket-line crossers, and managerial and clerical workers. Throughout the walkout, it logged record sales and profits.
''The replacement workers and picket-line crossers killed us,'' said Blaine Arendt, a trustee at UAW Local 145, as workers prepared to vote Sunday at a union hall near a sprawling company factory in Montgomery, Ill. About 14,000 UAW workers originally walked out at eight plants, but 4,100 eventually returned to work. Only 8,700 workers remained on strike until the end.
In combination, the failed strike and the rejection of a contract endorsed by the union leadership mark a severe loss in union credibility, according to industry analysts and labor experts. UAW leaders approved contract terms they had long opposed and left unresolved the status of 180 cases of alleged worker mistreatment that the union said had provoked the strike.
''This is a big setback for the union,'' says Audrey Freedman, a management consultant in New York.
The aborted strike is yet another glaring sign of how new labor-saving technology and competition from low-cost foreign workers have undermined the job security of American assembly-line workers, experts say. The failure ''emphasizes the role the global economy can play in undermining labor - for unions it is a pretty sobering lesson,'' says Harley Shaiken, a labor expert at the University of California, Berkeley.
Caterpillar, the world's leading maker of earth-moving equipment, has spent $1.8 billion on factory modernization since 1987 and steadily expanded overseas production in recent decades. It has also boosted exports; half of total sales go overseas. Meanwhile, UAW ranks at Caterpillar and other American companies have dwindled. The total UAW membership has shrunk 47 percent since 1979 to some 800,000.
AFL-CIO president John Sweeney, after his election at a federation convention in October, pledged to restore union strength through aggressive and, if necessary, confrontational activism. But during the final weeks of the strike, the federation did not add significant support. ''Sweeney is not silly. He is a good, shrewd tactician and he will not waste prestige, resources, and treasury on a company that has already established it can operate without the union,'' says Myron Roomkin of the Kellogg Graduate School of Management at Northwestern University, Evanston, Ill.
The strike could have proved far crueler for the UAW. ''The UAW leadership settled because it wanted to avoid a complete debacle: There is a big difference between a defeat and a debacle,'' Mr. Shaiken says.
The back-to-back record quarterly performance by Caterpillar and the defection of unionized workers threatened the possible collapse of the UAW at Caterpillar, analysts say.
Yet had it not struck, some experts say the union probably would have lost more in wages and other contract points. ''Although the union suffered a defeat, it prevented some pretty big dominoes from falling,'' Shaiken says.
In an effort to bolster its strength, the UAW is preparing to merge with steelworkers' and machinists' unions. The machinists face a test comparable to the Caterpillar strike at the Boeing Company, where a strike by airplane assembly workers is entering its third month.
Caterpillar management must handle some prickly spoils from victory. It must cope with 2,000 excess workers, probably by offering early retirement and slowly phasing in the former strikers, analysts say. Just as important, Caterpillar faces the mistrust of workers returning from the picket lines.
''Caterpillar has lost the feeling in the work force that they are a good employer and solid employer who will be 'fair,' '' Ms. Freedman says. ''But today, no employer can be good, solid, and 'fair.' Under the competitive conditions of today, either the company goes out of business because it has not adjusted to the new market, or it does adjust and looks vicious but does very well.''