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As Strikes Wane, Caterpillar Workers Hold The Line

Originally published on Mon July 2, 2012 5:35 pm

Whenever a car or truck turns off busy Channahon Road onto the long drive to the Caterpillar plant in Joliet, Ill., a handful of union workers on a picket line scream, "Scab! Scab!!"

As strikers try shaming the few workers and managers who cross the line, even a clearly marked sandwich delivery car gets shouted down.

Approximately 800 workers at this plant, which makes hydraulic systems for Caterpillar's heavy construction and mining equipment, are about to enter their third month on strike.

Negotiations Fail

These machinist union members rejected Caterpillar's offer earlier this year: a six-year contract that would freeze wages for most workers while sharply increasing health care costs and cutting pension benefits.

Joe Ahern, on the negotiating committee for the Joliet Local 851 of the International Association of Machinists, says Caterpillar's offer "really kinda was a sucker punch to me."

Ahern says the company never truly negotiated with the workers. Through the negotiation process, he says, Caterpillar management rarely tried to find common ground.

"It was always, 'This is our last, best and final,' " Ahern says. "And it was sad that way."

What Ahern finds particularly insulting, he says, is that Caterpillar earned record profits last year — and is on pace to do so again.

"This company is a global leader," Ahern says. "And I don't understand why they wouldn't want to see their employees paid that way ... or why they have to be below the bar on their wages and benefits."

In an emailed statement, a Caterpillar spokesman says "the company has offered what it believes is a fair, reasonable and comprehensive proposal," and that it has "exhausted the negotiation process."

Caterpillar is now trying to hire temporary replacement workers to keep the plant running.

'This Is A Throwback'

Robert Bruno, a labor employment relations professor at the University of Illinois, says this strike is anomaly.

"We don't see a lot of strikes" in general these days, Bruno says, much less ones by large bargaining units. And "we don't see a lot of strikes by large bargaining units that go on for more than 24 hours, a couple of shifts, a week," he says.

"This is a throwback," Bruno says.

During the 1970s and early 1980s, there were hundreds of strikes of more than 1,000 workers each year in the U.S., according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

But in 2009 — at the height of the recession — there were only five.

That number has ticked up to 19 strikes in 2011, but even so, unions have largely lost their punch, Bruno says.

"Clearly, labor has its back up against the wall in the private sector as well as the public sector," he says. "And the fights in the public sector — particularly those in the Midwest — have had an impact on the state of mind of lots of union workers."

Holding Fast, Despite The Financial Hit

Caterpillar has a history of using hardball tactics against its unions. The company wore down its largest union, the United Auto Workers, during a long and bitter strike in the 1990s. The workers eventually were forced to take deep concessions.

And earlier this year, Caterpillar closed a plant in London, Ontario, when the union there balked at pay cuts.

But the standoff in Joliet appears to be a rare case, Bruno says. Union workers, who have already made significant concessions, feel they have little more to lose by drawing a line in the sand.

But the work stoppage comes at a cost, and the workers are hurting. Most are earning only $150 a week in strike pay.

No new negotiations are currently scheduled in Joliet, although the union says it's ready to negotiate at any time. For now, the workers insist that this strike is part of a larger struggle for workers: fighting for the right to earn wages that will keep them in the middle class.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

At a Caterpillar plant outside Chicago, about 800 workers are about to enter their third month on strike. The plant, in Joliet, Illinois, makes hydraulic systems for Caterpillar's heavy construction and mining equipment. Such long work stoppages at big factories are rare these days. NPR's David Schaper reports on why this one seems to have no end in sight.

(SOUNDBITE OF MACHINERY)

DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: Whenever any car or truck turns off of busy Channahon Road onto the long drive into Caterpillar's Joliet hydraulics plant, the dozen or so union workers on the picket line scream...

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Scab. Scab.

SCHAPER: Even a car clearly marked as delivering sandwiches gets the same treatment as the few workers and managers who have crossed this picket line to try to keep the plant running.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Scab.

SCHAPER: These members of the machinists' union rejected Caterpillar's offer of a six-year contract that would freeze wages for most workers, while sharply increasing health care costs and cutting pension benefits.

JOE AHERN: This one here really kind of was a sucker punch to me.

SCHAPER: Joe Ahern is on the negotiating committee for the Joliet local of the International Association of Machinists, and he says the company never really negotiated.

AHERN: It was very rare you got to the situation where I want A, you want B, let's meet in the middle or let's try to find something - some common ground. It was always this is our last, best and final, and it was sad that way.

SCHAPER: What Ahern says is especially insulting is that Caterpillar earned record profits last year and is on pace to do so again.

AHERN: This company is a global leader, and I don't understand why they wouldn't want to see their employees paid that way, you know, as a leader, why they have to be below the bar on their wages and benefits.

SCHAPER: A spokesman for Caterpillar refused to comment on the strike on air but says in an email that the company has offered what it believes is a fair, reasonable and comprehensive proposal, and that the company has now exhausted the negotiation process. Caterpillar is now trying to hire temporary replacement workers. Robert Bruno teaches labor and employment relations at the University of Illinois and says this strike is an anomaly.

ROBERT BRUNO: We don't see a lot of strikes. We don't see a lot of strikes by large bargaining units, and we don't see a lot of strikes by large bargaining units that go on for more than 24 hours, a couple of shifts, a week. This is a throwback.

SCHAPER: According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, during the 1970s and early '80s, there were hundreds of strikes of more than 1,000 workers each year in the U.S. In 2009, at the height of the recession, there were only five. Last year, there were 19, but Bruno says unions have largely lost their punch.

BRUNO: Clearly, labor has its back up against the wall in the private sector as well as the public sector, and the fights in the public sector, particularly those in the Midwest, I think have had an impact on the state of mind of lots of union workers.

SCHAPER: Caterpillar has a history of hardball tactics against its unions. The company wore down its largest union, the UAW, during a long and bitter strike in the 1990s, eventually forcing it to take deep concessions. And earlier this year, Caterpillar closed a plant in London, Ontario, when the union there balked at pay cuts. But Bruno says this appears to be one of those rare fights in which union workers who have already made significant concessions don't see more to lose by drawing a line in the sand.

But these workers here in Joliet are hurting, most earning only $150 a week in strike pay. No new negotiations are scheduled. The union says it's ready to negotiate at any time and insists that this strike is part of a larger struggle for the right of workers to earn wages that will keep them in the middle class. David Schaper, NPR News, Chicago.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.