Workers draw a line at Cat

May 8, 2012

Mario Cardenas reports from the picket line of a strike by hundreds of IAM members.

SINCE MAY 1, nearly 800 members of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers have been on strike at a Caterpillar plant in Joliet, Ill.

The strike was precipitated by Caterpillar's demand for a six-year contract, a wage and pension freeze, and a 100 percent increase in health care premiums from workers. All of this would amount to a $2 an hour cut in pay for the average worker, according to the union.

Caterpillar also wants to gut the jobs-bidding program, which is the heart of the union's power in the workplace. It is a system for workers to develop new skills on the job and move into higher job classifications without fearing favoritism on the part of the bosses.

"We had a 94 percent strike vote, so that tells you very clear that everyone was being affected," said Tim O'Brien, a Caterpillar employee since 1974 and president of IAM Local Lodge 851. "This past first quarter, Caterpillar posted a $1.586 billion profit. Everything that they were proposing was going to save them money and cost our members money--young to old. It was bad."

Caterpillar workers on the picket line against company demands for concessions
Caterpillar workers on the picket line against company demands for concessions (Mario Cardenas)

Caterpillar has a history of such union-busting techniques. In the mid-1990s, the United Auto Workers conducted two long strikes in a struggle for a new contract that lasted from 1992 to 1998. In 2005, UAW officials backed a six-year agreement that cut pay for new workers by about $10 per hour.

IAM WORKERS' frustration is understandable, given that Caterpillar CEO Douglas Oberhelman's total compensation for 2011 was $14.8 million--which included a 32 percent salary increase. Caterpillar is riding a wave of confidence after locking out workers at the Electro-Motive plant in London, Ontario, last winter.

According to strikers, it appears that Caterpillar has been anticipating this battle for some time. They allege the company has been stockpiling parts needed at assembly plants and running ads for replacement workers. Some strikers expressed the concern that Caterpillar plans to keep workers on the picket line for the next two months in order to whittle down some excess inventory, while not paying wages.

Chris Gimpel, age 64 and a machinist for 44 years, commented on the contract: "Our medical will go up, and by the end of the six-year agreement, we will be making less money."

When asked about his hopes for the outcome of the strike, Gimpel said, "If you don't have a union, you're pretty much at the mercy of your employer...They gave us no option in there to go back to work. Our only option is standing out on Route 6, in front of Caterpillar."

The picket line was lively, with about 50 workers carrying signs, yelling at scab cars coming in and out of the plant, and receiving honks of support from passersby, including a large motorcycle club. The picket line had supporters from other unions on it, including staffers from an Erie, Pa., United Electrical workers local, a member of the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades, and a railroad worker.

The Joliet Caterpillar plant is a parts manufacturer that supplies three other Caterpillar plants in Illinois, as well as one in Indiana--where construction and mining machines are assembled. Like the 1996 General Motors strike in Dayton, Ohio, the Caterpillar strike has the potential of affecting other plants in the supply chain, effectively stopping production on a number of Caterpillar's most profitable machines. But management is claiming in the media that it can keep production going in Joliet.

Currently, there are no plans for negotiations, and the strike is on for the foreseeable future. A solidarity rally is planned for Friday, May 11.

"That's what this country needs to see--working people sticking together...standing up against a corporate giant," O'Brien said.

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