Thursday, July 12

15 Minutes of…

Warhol said we were all going to get our 15 minutes of fame. I had 15 minutes—maybe a bit less—as an investigative reporter.

In the mid-70s I was news director for WEEK-TV in Peoria. You're heard of "one-horse towns?" Peoria had one helluva horse that drove everything: Caterpillar Inc. The huge heavy-equipment manufacturer touched every life in the area. It seemed that everyone and his brother (and his wife, and his kids, and his uncle, and his neighbor) worked for Caterpillar. And they made good money—great money. There was disposable income to spare. It seemed there were two cars and a pickup truck in every driveway (the truck had a trailer and the trailer had a boat)—every house had a new rec room—every backyard had a pool—every kid was going to college, all on Caterpillar paychecks. At least that's the way it seemed.

Best of all, the business seemed recession proof. If they're not buying bulldozers in Atlanta, the prevailing wisdom went, they're certainly ordering D-10s in Abu Dhabi or Australia. The Cat reputation was spotless, Cat equipment was matchless—the people of Peoria had worked hard and it had paid off: they were living the good life. Our founding fathers had a dream in 1776. When I arrived in Peoria 200 years later local residents were living it.

That's why I had trouble understanding the hints of labor unrest we were seeing in the mid-70s. United Auto Workers Union members, locked in contract negotiations with the company, did the traditional saber-rattling: they scheduled a strike authorization vote. Not a vote to actually go on strike, but a vote to authorize local union leaders to take the union out after giving the company a contractually specified notice.

But not everyone in the union was happy with the idea of walking the picket lines—of leaving behind their paychecks. As ND I always tried to take as many viewer calls as I could squeeze in, just to take the public's pulse. One night I spoke—at length—to a union dissident. He made an articulate case that some union leaders were trying to stampede the rank and file into a strike to solidify their strength. He said the authorization vote was a fait accompli, that union leaders were just going through the motions with the outcome already assured. Dissent, he said, was being stifled; and even if his voice could be heard, he was convinced his vote wouldn't be counted. He said the election was going to be rigged.

"In fact," he told me, "the election is such a farce that you could go in and vote."

"Aw, c'mon. This is serious stuff. You don't expect me to believe that I could vote?"

"Prove me wrong."

Right or wrong, I sensed a story.

On voting day, I sent a photographer to shoot routine footage of the outside of UAW headquarters for a routine union vote story. Nothing that would arouse any suspicion. But I told him to make sure he got footage of me when I went in to try to vote.

And that's what I did. No, I didn't go in wearing a suit and tie: I wore jeans, work boots and a work shirt. And I was determined that whatever happened I would not lie. If confronted I would freely admit I worked for Channel 25 and take my chances.

I wasn't challenged. No one asked to see my union card or any form of ID. The man sitting behind the desk said, "Here y'go, buddy" and handed me a ballot. I took it over to one of the nearby countertops and pretended to write on it. I folded it—put it in the ballot box—and ran the story that night, including a hidden-identity interview with my informant explaining why unsupervised voting was dangerous. When I called local union officials to explain the story and ask for reaction, they refused to comment.

Someone "commented" the next morning. I was living in a duplex with an attached garage. I got into my car that morning, used the remote to open the garage door, backed out and punched the button to close the door. That's when I saw it.

%$^& YOU

written on the door. I pulled the car back inside, closed the door, went inside the house and called the cops.

It wasn't until the officers arrived that I took a hard look at the message. I was surprised. No spray paint—the quick and easy way to deface property. No, someone had gone to the time and trouble to use strips of black electrical tape for the message. After a police photographer took pics of the door it took all of 45 seconds to simply peel the tape off. No harm done.

I remember telling the police sergeant at the scene that I thought it was downright neighborly of them (to this day who "they" were remains unclear) to go to the trouble of using tape. I explained that I had worked in Detroit—the Motor City—and that my impression was that if you crossed the union in Detroit, someone would carve %$^& YOU on your forehead with a penknife and drop you in the Rouge River. Chalk it up to Midwest values. I loved Peoria.

A footnote. In the coming years Japanese competition cut into Caterpillar's share of the world's heavy equipment market. Cat could no longer name its own price. Feeling the pinch, Cat executives held firm in labor negotiations. The union dug in its heels. In 1991 the union was on strike for six months. Then in 1994 unionized workers were on the picket lines for a year-and-a-half, until they offered to go back. The Detroit News ran a headline saying, "UAW Surrenders at Caterpillar." But the damage had already been done. The strike didn't send ripples through the local economy—it was a tsunami! Local businesses (restaurants, car dealers, clothing stores) went belly-up. No one was spending discretionary income because no one had discretionary income.

That hasn't been the end of it. There have been strikes and threats of strikes for years now. As best as I can tell from a distance of hundreds of miles and many years, Caterpillar remains a good place to work: but it once was a great place to work. I'm neither pro- nor anti-union. But I guess you could say I'm for labor peace.

One last word about my "vote." I'll give the local UAW leaders credit for honesty—maybe even a sense of humor. The next day, when it came time to report the vote totals, the union release listed yea-many-thousands for, so-many-hundreds against, and one "spoiled ballot." Good for them.

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