Caterpillar workers walk off job in Joliet
By Cindy Wojdyla Cain firstname.lastname@example.org April 30, 2012 3:52PM
Rick Thomas (left) and Bob Banks (right), Caterpillar workers represented by Machinists Union No. 851, gather for an informational picket outside the Caterpillar plant Tuesday, April 24, 2012, at 2200 Channahon Rd. in Joliet. | Matthew Grotto~Sun-Times Media
Updated: June 2, 2012 8:10AM
Union workers have rejected Peoria-based Caterpillar Inc.’s latest contract offer and walked off the job at Caterpillar’s plant in Joliet.
Workers with picket signs lined up outside the plant early Tuesday. The contract expired at midnight for about 800 workers at the manufacturing plant.
The union members are asking for better wages and health care.
The Caterpillar employees are members of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers. Those union members voted against a contract offer Sunday, and talks between the union and Caterpillar broke down late Monday.
A spokesman for Caterpillar says the strike won’t disrupt production at Joliet. Spokesman Rusty Dunn calls the situation “unfortunate” and says the company is focused on continuing to serve its customers.
After Monday morning negotiations with the company were unsuccessful, members of Local Lodge 851 of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace workers were alerted to prepare for the strike, Steve Jones, director business representative for the union’s District 8, said.
Caterpillar retirees and managers will staff the plant during the work stoppage, according to the company’s website.
Dunn said the facility would continue to serve customers without interruption.
“We are going to continue to run our business as normal, meet production levels and provide uninterrupted service to our customers,” he said.
“Caterpillar has work plans, processes, policies and people ready to be deployed in the event of any business interruption, whether it is a tornado, fire or a labor strike. Our principal mission is to serve our customers under any circumstances and deliver on our commitments.”
The previous seven-year contract expired at midnight Monday. Union workers authorized a strike on Sunday after “overwhelmingly” rejecting the company’s six-year contract offer.
Machinists are fighting to preserve their wages and benefits at a time when Caterpillar is earning record profits, union officials have said.
The company’s last offer would have kept wages flat for six years while health insurance contributions would have doubled, Jones said.
Also, the company wants to strip away seniority rights and freeze pensions and convert all employees to a 401k-type plan, Jones said.
“The company is getting out of the pension game,” he said.
Caterpillar has set up a website at jolietbargainingupdates.cat.com with information on its latest contract offer.
While wage cuts were proposed at one time, those were removed from the table recently, Jones said.
Contract talks began March 19. About 800 of the company’s 2,000 workers in Joliet are in the machinists union. The plant produces hydraulic components for tractors assembled elsewhere.
According to www.caterpillar.com, the company generated record-breaking sales in 2011 and revenues of $60 billion, up 41 percent from almost $43 billion in 2010.
Jones said the company made $4.9 billion in profits last year and $1.58 billion in the first quarter of this year.
The company’s CEO received a 42 percent compensation increase “at a time when they’re trying to take back from the workers,” Jones said.
In February, Caterpillar announced it was closing a locomotive plant in London, Ontario, after the Canadian Auto Workers there refused to accept steep wage cuts.
In March, Caterpillar announced plans to shift work from Joliet to a $20 million expansion at one of its South Carolina plants so it can handle additional work.
No job cuts were expected in Joliet, and the company said it would invest $50 million there to expand capacity for truck strut production.