Caterpillar strikers: ‘We can’t give up’
By Cindy Wojdyla Cain | email@example.com June 29, 2012 8:36PM
Striking Caterpillar workers (left to right) Mark Stanislaus, of Joliet, Bob Casarez, of Shorewood, Bruce Boaz, of Marseilles, and Sean Gallaway, of Braidwood, walk the picket line outside the Caterpillar plant in Joliet, Illinois, Wednesday, June 27, 2012. | Joseph P. Meier~Sun-Times Media
Updated: August 2, 2012 6:17AM
Shortly before machinist Randy Yeates went on strike, his car died and he got married for the second time.
It wasn’t a good time for his income to plummet. But Yeates, 40, of Joliet, who has worked at the Caterpillar plant on Route 6 for 18 years, said he’s making the best of a bad situation as the strike enters its third month Sunday.
“It’s a struggle,” Yeates said Wednesday as he picked up his $150 weekly strike stipend check at Local Lodge 851 of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers headquarters in Channahon.
Yeates and his wife were in the process of buying a new house when the machinists strike against Peoria-based Caterpillar started May 1.
But he lucked out because his spouse has good credit and is employed as a teacher, so the sale went through.
“That’s basically what’s keeping us going,” he said of his wife’s salary and benefits.
While his wife works, Yeates said he does all the household chores and cooking. His $150 a week strike pay is used to buy food for his family of five. Yeates has three sons, ages 18, 16 and 12.
“They’re always eating,” he said.
Yeates and his youngest son, Russell, also picked up a few groceries from the union’s food pantry to supplement what they can afford to buy. They loaded the bags into the back of a Mercury Mariner that a fellow parishioner at Minooka Bible Church loaned to Yeates while his wife was out of town with their only car.
Extras are tough to afford. Yeates said he needs $190 for Russell’s summer church camp.
“We don’t know where we’re going to get the money,” he said.
But no matter how hard his finances are squeezed, Yeates said he won’t be tempted to go back to work until a new contract is approved by union members who have overwhelmingly rejected two offers from the company since their seven-year pact expired on April 30.
“I’d never cross the line,” Yeates said. “I’m not going to be that person.”
Hot dogs and brats
Also picking up food pantry groceries and a check Wednesday was Tom Platt, 58, of Joliet, who has worked at the plant for 39 years.
“Right now, I’m eating a lot of hot dogs and bratwurst,” he said. “I’ve got to get back to work so I can get a steak.”
Platt said he worked as much overtime as he could before the strike, so his car is paid for. But he’s already falling behind on his mortgage payments.
“I’m paying half of my mortgage until the money runs out,” he said.
For Platt, his health is a bigger concern than his mortgage. He can’t afford to pay $1,500 a month to keep his insurance going, so he’s putting off surgery for a growth on his esophagus.
“It’s precancerous, and I don’t want it to turn cancerous,” he said.
While Yeates and Platt and most of the machinists are standing strong, about 40 of the 780 union members have crossed the picket line so far.
“At this point, the company expected at least 50 percent to be back in, and we’re at 5 percent — that’s outstanding,” said union steward Sean Gallaway, of Braidwood.
The union is helping members survive by informing them of state assistance programs for prescriptions and insurance for children, Internet coupons for baby formula and free home and car repairs from fellow union members who have those skills, Gallaway said.
The food pantry has been stocked by community organizations and fellow union members. For instance, the United Auto Workers from Caterpillar’s Pontiac plant had a food drive and they sent a 17-foot trailer filled with food to the machinists.
“We even have cookouts to get together and de-stress,” said union steward Bob Casarez of Shorewood as he stood on the picket line Wednesday holding a sign that read, “Local 851, Fighting Corporate Greed.”
Casarez said he “cringed” at the beginning of the strike when he heard union members were cutting their medications in half to make them last, but the prescription help from the state has helped many return to full-strength doses.
Gallaway, 43, who has worked at the plant 15 years and Casarez, 41, who has been there 16 years, are both Tier I workers who earn more than machinists hired after May 2005, say they are worried about the new hires who are in a lower paid Tier II and the soon-to-be retirees who are about to leave the workforce.
Mark Stanislaus, 23, of Joliet, has worked at the plant for only three years. At first he was a part-time supplemental worker, earning less than even a Tier II worker, then he was laid off. In May 2011 he became full time again, but now he’s on strike.
He’s living with his father and is able to make his truck payments, but hospital bills from a previous accident are going to have to wind up in collections, Stanislaus said.
Bruce Boaz, 57, of Marseilles, has worked at the plant for 39 years. He could retire now, but he won’t set foot in the plant until the strike is resolved.
He expects his insurance payments to shoot up from $150 to more than $600 once he retires.
The union and Caterpillar officials had a rare negotiations session Wednesday afternoon, but nothing came of the talks, which were led by a federal mediator.
The two sides are far apart on pay, health care costs and seniority issues, both sides say.
Union members want Tier II and supplemental workers, who earn an average $17 and $14 an hour, respectively, to get cost-of-living-pay increases. The company has offered market-based pay increases with a promise that compensation can’t go down.
Insurance costs will more than double over the life of the proposed six-year contract, which is a concern to workers whose pay may or may not increase, union officials have said. Caterpillar officials say the percent machinists will be required to pay is similar to what “many Americans” already are paying.
Union members also can’t understand why the company is playing hardball when it is making record profits. But the company said it has to prepare for the future and more intense global competition.
Caterpillar says the temporary workforce at the Joliet plant, made up of engineers and supervisors from other plants, is producing hydraulic components at a rate that is above pre-strike levels. But the union says some of the parts are defective and there are slowdowns at other plants that rely on the tractor and truck parts produced in Joliet.
Company spokesman Rusty Dunn said Friday the company plans to hire more temporary replacement workers.
“We will continue to hire and train replacement workers until the strike ends or all of our Caterpillar management employees have been released,” he said in an emailed statement.
He also said the company’s “last, best and final offer” remains on the table, but it appears the two sides have “exhausted the negotiations process.”
‘All about them’
While no one wants the strike to drag on and tensions are high, striking workers were glad to be outside last week when temperatures topped 100 degrees, which meant conditions in the plant were 10 to 15 degrees higher. Some of them are using the strike to catch up on chores around the house.
“I don’t have a weed in my yard,” Platt said.
But there are serious issues at stake. Veterans like Boaz said they’ll stay out on strike as long as it takes to protect the younger machinists.
“It’s all about them,” Boaz said. “They’ve got to have a way to better themselves. We can’t give up all we’ve fought for all of these years.”