Picket Lines? Just Call 1 800 Strikebreaker

When 14,000 members of the United Auto Workers (UAW) walked off the job at Caterpillar Inc. last June, management wanted to keep the plants running anyway. To do so, the heavy-equipment maker needed replacements fast.

It didn't have to look far. These days, replacement workers--brought in to do the jobs of striking workers--are readily available from a slew of temporary-help agencies trying to turn an extra buck. Worldwide Labor Support in Pascagoula, Miss., has provided Cat with up to 225 welders and technicians. Manufacturing Technical Search Inc. in Westchester, Ill., and Strom Engineering Corp., a temporary-employment company in Minnetonka, Minn., have also supplied Caterpillar. Some replacement-worker sources are more familiar--and surprising: McDonnell-Douglas Corp. says it has supplied Cat with workers--even though it has 8,000 UAW members of its own. Sources close to Cat say the workers are machinists helping the company weather its strike.

HUMMING ALONG. Development of a national pool of replacement workers gives union employers a powerful new weapon against labor. Rather than shut down and rely on piled-up inventory to get through a walkout, employers can turn to strikebreaker outfits to keep production lines humming. Supplying replacements remains controversial: Manpower Inc., the nation's largest temp agency, shuns the practice. And employers often put up with hefty sacrifices in cost and quality, caused by the turnover in temps who camp out in motels far from home. Still, the practice is shifting "the balance of power even further to management," says Harley Shaiken, a labor economist at the University of California at Berkeley.

The ease with which employers can find replacements is having an effect on some strikes. Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. has used workers supplied by Defender Services Inc. in Columbia, S.C., during an eight-month strike by the rubber workers union. With limited in-house resources to handle such situations, "you use whatever you can," says a Bridgestone spokesman. Indeed, the strikebreaker business now is so sophisticated that some agencies have built up national databases of workers. Denver's U.S. Nursing Corp., which supplies medical staff to hospitals coping with strikes, says it has 5,000 names on tap.

A national pool of ready workers is also having an effect on labor talks. For instance, after Deere & Co. saw that Caterpillar could operate despite a walkout, it took a tough line in negotiations with the UAW. The union was so afraid of losing jobs that it remained at work for four months rather than strike. On Mar. 5, it gave in to many of Deere's demands. "We were worried that they had hired the same temp firms that Caterpillar is using," says one UAW official. But Deere says this wasn't the case.

Providing employers with strikebreakers, of course, is far from a risk-free undertaking. Manpower President Mitchell S. Fromstein says his agency hasn't gotten into the business, partly because doing so could "put our employees' safety at risk." And President Clinton's Mar. 8 executive order barring big employers that hire permanent replacements from obtaining any federal contracts may put a crimp in the business--though probably not a big one. Shipping in replacement workers is just too potent a weapon against union picket lines.

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