Caterpillar, union trade claims as strike continues
By Cindy Wojdyla Cain firstname.lastname@example.org July 19, 2012 2:10PM
Striking Caterpillar workers walk the picket line outside the Caterpillar plant in Joliet, Illinois, Wednesday, June 27, 2012. | Joseph P. Meier~Sun-Times Media
Updated: August 21, 2012 6:28AM
JOLIET — Caterpillar Inc. officials are disputing a claim by the International Association of Machinists that the company is unwilling meet to negotiate an end to an 80-day strike at its Joliet plant.
In a letter to Local Lodge 851 union members, union officials said: “We have been attempting to get back to the table, through the mediator. The District is in continuous contact with the mediator in an effort to move along this process. At the time of writing this letter, the company has refused to meet with us.”
In a rebuttal letter posted on Peoria-based Caterpillar’s website, Kendra Abrokwa, the company’s labor relations manager for the Joliet plant, said the claim is untrue.
“Caterpillar’s representatives have never refused to meet with the union’s negotiating committee,” she said.
Abrokwa also said the company has met twice with the mediator at the union’s request.
“Unfortunately, no progress was made toward ending the dispute,” she wrote. “The negotiations progress is clearly deadlocked at this point.”
She said the company’s “last, best and final offer” remains on the table, a statement company officials have been repeating for weeks.
And while Abrokwa said the company hasn’t refused to meet with the union, the letter also included what appears to be a condition for resuming negotiations. The letter states Caterpillar will resume discussions “ ... if and when the IAM is prepared to deal realistically with the issues before us.”
Steve Jones, directing business representative the union’s District 8, said that condition shows that the company is only willing to meet on its own terms.
“Their position has been: Unless you meet our conditions and only talk about specific issues there’s no reason to meet and we’re not going to get together,” Jones said.
Since the strike by about 780 workers started on May 1, two contract offers have been overwhelmingly rejected by union members.
Union officials said the proposed contract would have frozen workers’ pay, hiked insurance costs, reduced pension benefits and weakened seniority rights.
Company officials said the contract offer could led to raises based on market-based wages, which would have kept the company competitive globally. Also, they said health care costs were only rising to a level paid by “many Americans.”
In early weeks of the strike, the plant was staffed with supervisors and retired managers. More recently, the company has been hiring temporary contingency workers to fill the jobs.
Caterpillar said the Joliet plant, which is the global headquarters for hydraulic components, is productive in spite of the strike. Union officials say the items leaving the plant are substandard and have led to slowdowns at other plants.