Like many Palestine solidarity activists, I’ve long regarded Caterpillar as a callous firm. A trip to the Belgian city of Charleroi over the weekend reinforced this view.
Caterpillar recently announced that it is shedding 1,400 jobs from its Charleroi plant. The measure has been presented as “indispensable” for reasons of “competitiveness” by Nicolas Polutnik, the plant’s chief executive. His rationale merits contempt. Caterpillar, which raked in a profit of almost $5.7 billion last year, is lengthening the dole queues in a city where unemployment already exceeds 20 percent.
War against workers
Far from having no other option than to “downsize,” it is waging an ideological war against workers’ rights. As the second largest US employer in the country, Caterpillar plays an active role in the American Chamber of Commerce in Belgium. This grouping has seized on the global economic crisis to try and unravel hard-won gains by the country’s labor movement. One of the chamber’s top targets at the moment is automatic wage indexation — a requirement that employers increase their workers’ pay when the cost of living rises.
Caterpillar’s cruel disregard for the firm’s own employees chimes completely with its support for Israeli apartheid. Documents published by the Israeli embassy in Brussels list Caterpillar machines made in Charleroi as being among Belgium’s top exports to Israel.
Almost two years ago, I confronted Paolo Fellin, a Caterpillar vice-president, over how his company’s bulldozers were being used to destroy Palestinian homes. Fellin replied: “If our products end up in certain parts of the world, then I have no control over that.”
His dishonesty was brazen. Fellin’s area of responsibility included the Middle East, so — unless he was incompetent — he knew a thing or two about Zoko, which acts as Caterpillar’s Israeli dealer. Zoko’s own website has a section dedicated to its work for the Israeli army. The section explicitly states that Zoko has tweaked vehicles so that they can be used for military purposes: the distinctive black, yellow and white Caterpillar logo can be seen on some of the vehicles in question. This amounts to an admission of guilt in facilitating war crimes.
Weapon of occupation
Rachel Corrie is the best known victim of those crimes. It is only correct that we salute her bravery and selflessness on the tenth anniversary of her murder. Caterpillar cannot be allowed evade responsibility for this abominable act. Yes, it was an Israeli soldier who crushed her to death as she tried to stop him from demolishing a home in Gaza. But the Caterpillar bulldozer he was driving had been transformed especially so that it could serve as a weapon of dispossession and occupation.
A decade later, Caterpillar’s vehicles are still being used for those purposes. As Joe Catron reported last week, Israeli troops have ruined farmland inside Gaza — with the aid of Caterpillar bulldozers — over the past few months.
While in Charleroi, I learned that shortly before management announced the job losses, local Palestine solidarity activists had been in contact with trade unionists representing Caterpillar’s workers. Despite the company’s dealings with Israel, the unionists were sympathetic to the Palestine solidarity movement, I was told. That didn’t surprise me: the labor rights movement in Belgium is generally supportive of efforts to dismantle Israeli apartheid.
It is entirely understandable that saving their own jobs is now the top concern of Caterpillar’s workers. But this shouldn’t mean that Palestine solidarity campaigners should stop reaching out to these workers — or those who remain once the management implements its “restructuring plan.”
Caterpillar appears intent on destroying livelihoods in both Europe and Palestine. Taming this corporate monster requires building the broadest possible alliance.