Cat strikers say they’re taking a stand
By Cindy Cain email@example.com May 1, 2012 9:51AM
Updated: June 3, 2012 8:11AM
It’s time for the “little guy” to stand up, union machinist Bill McCarl II said Tuesday morning as he walked a picket line in front of Peoria-based Caterpillar Inc.’s Joliet plant.
“We’ve been lying down too long,” McCarl said. “All the corporations are doing is knocking us down, and we’ve got to keep getting back up. It’s time to stand up and fight for our rights.”
McCarl, a 19-year veteran of the plant, and about 780 of his fellow International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers union members are on strike.
More than 100 workers poured out of the plant when their previous seven-year contract expired at 12:01 a.m. Tuesday to hit the picket line. Teams of 20 union members have been assigned to the plant’s two entrances for the duration of the strike. Late Tuesday morning striking workers were told portable toilets had been ordered and a giant inflatable rat would arrive soon.
Caterpillar’s final contract offer was rejected by union members on Sunday, and a strike was simultaneously authorized. A final attempt to reach a deal on Monday morning failed and no new talks are scheduled.
Steve Jones, directing business representative for the union’s District 8, said the company’s final offer would have:
Provided no pay raises for six years while health insurance costs would double.
Failed to put the retirees health insurance payment plan in writing.
Stripped away seniority rights.
Prevented Tier II workers from transitioning to the higher-paid Tier I.
Eliminated cost of living increases tied to inflation rates for Tier I workers and failed to provide them for Tier II workers.
Allowed “supplemental” workers to work at the plant for two years with no benefits.
Frozen and eliminated the pension program and shifted everyone to a 401k-type plan.
Company spokesman Rusty Dunn would not comment on the union’s specific concerns.
“It would not be appropriate to respond to specific questions or issues being raised on the picket line,” he said in an email. “As we have stated, the company’s last, best and final offer presented to union negotiators last Friday is one that we believe is a fair, reasonable and comprehensive proposal. We continue to be open to resuming discussions whenever the union is prepared to deal realistically with the issues before us.”
Jones said Tier II workers — who were hired after May 2, 2005 — have been earning $13 an hour for the past seven years and the company’s new contract would have kept them at $13 an hour even with health care costs increasing.
“They’ve got to have something,” he said. “$13 an hour for 13 years with escalating health premiums and no pension is ridiculous.”
Top scale for Tier I workers — who were hired before May 2, 2005 — would be frozen at $28 an hour, Jones said.
“All we want is a fair agreement at a time when Caterpillar is making record profits,” Jones said.
Jones said a lot of “mom and pop” businesses are hurting because the middle class is being wiped out, but Caterpillar, a global manufacturer of construction and mining equipment, is not hurting financially.
On its website, Caterpillar reported record first quarter profits of $1.586 billion, which is up 29 percent from the first quarter last year. The company attributed the increase to global and domestic demand for its products and its ability to control costs and create factory efficiencies.
“We have helped create a very wealthy corporation with our blood, sweat and tears,” the union’s Jones said. “So we would hope they would at some point understand a sense of fairness and respond to their employees and the communities they operate inside of.”
Since negotiations have stopped, Jones said the union will look to the community for support and it will reach out to faith-based groups and political leaders.
“It is an election year and we would hope they would support their constituents and the workers here in their districts,” he said.
Larry Walsh Jr., the machinist union’s secretary treasurer, was appointed state representative for the 86th District just hours before Local 851 went on strike. He is replacing state Rep. Jack McGuire, D-Joliet, who retired.
Joe Nuske, chairman of Local Lodge 851’s negotiating committee, said all the union wants to see is fair wages and a dignified retirement.
“It’s a good-paying job,” Nuske added. “We want to keep it a good-paying job.”
Tom Albrecht, who has worked at the plant since 1974 and has only two months to work until he can retire, said in the past, the company would give up some things to get things.
“Now it just seems they’re taking it all away,” he said. “You don’t see any balance.”
Albrecht, of Frankfort, survived an eight-year layoff from 1982 to 1989, which is why he doesn’t have his 30 years in yet.
Matt Lane, who is a Tier II United Auto Workers Union member at Caterpillar’s Aurora plant, came to the Joliet plant’s picket line near his home to offer his support.
“Caterpillar is not the way it used to be,” he said. “I understand where (the machinists) are coming from. To have to pay twice the benefits and to have to not get any raise, what’s the point of working if you can’t even live.”
Lane said he has to work two jobs to survive.
Karl Mason, a machinist who retired from the Joliet plant in 1991, said he was the lead negotiator for the machinists union during the strike of 1986, which lasted 28 days.
“It was bitter for a while,” he said. “Our spirits were up for a week or two, then it started getting kind of rough.”
Mason said he was sad to see new turmoil at the plant, and he was hoping for the best.
“You’re just half sick to your stomach to see it happen,” he said as he walked with a cane back to his car. “We don’t want to see a long (strike).”