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Emotional, bitter day for Cat workers

Striking workers wave passing motorists thhonked their horns outside Caterpillar plant Wednesday Aug. 15 2012 Joliet. | Matthew Grotto~Sun-Times Media

Striking workers wave to passing motorists that honked their horns outside the Caterpillar plant Wednesday, Aug. 15, 2012, in Joliet. | Matthew Grotto~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: September 20, 2012 10:04AM



JOLIET — As machinists rushed out of a union hall on Friday they seemed bitter, demoralized and angry, even though a majority had just voted to end a 16-week strike at Caterpillar Inc.’s Joliet plant.

All along, the 780 union workers had billed their fight against the corporate Goliath as a battle to save the middle class by preserving decent wages, traditional pensions and low-cost health care benefits.

But their quest was not to be. While veteran workers cautioned younger machinists to look at the big picture and fight for a better future, many were enduring financial hardships and more were crossing the picket line every day.

In the end, those who voted in favor of the contract believed they would not gain more by holding out longer.

The new six-year deal includes a one-time 3 percent pay raise for Tier 2 workers hired after May 2005 and a $3,100 signing bonus for all workers. It more than doubles health care payments, freezes pensions and provides no raises for Tier I workers hired before May 2005.

‘The dream is gone’

The thought of returning to work without a raise was too much for Vickey Pogliano, who burst into tears outside the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Union, where the vote was held.

“We can’t even get a cost of living (increase) of 20 cents a year,” she said choking back tears. “Then they’re going to triple our medical.”

Pogliano said she was shocked by the contract approval.

“I know a lot of people were hurting and they were needing money but they didn’t see the big picture,” she said.

Jamie Dillon, of Lake Station, Ind., said he would look for another job even with a contract settlement.

“The dream is gone,” he said.

Robert Bruno, a professor of labor and employee relations at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said union employees in a labor-friendly state and a labor-friendly city who work for a company making record profits shouldn’t have to accept a concessionary contract. He also said other corporations will watch what Caterpillar has done with its negotiations and mimic it.

“It’s mean and it seems disrespectful of the workers there,” he said. “Clearly, it wasn’t necessary to take such a hard position as Caterpillar did.”

But Caterpillar spokesman Rusty Dunn said in an email that the company has a responsibility to not only its 132,000 employees, but also to stockholders and customers. Company officials have to prepare for when the company’s financial outlook might be bad, Dunn said in the email.

“The Joliet plant — like any Caterpillar facility — must be a reliable, cost-effective supplier (in this case, hydraulic components and systems) and contributor to the company’s overall operations,” Dunn said. “There are suppliers around the world who could produce what Joliet does; this is about keeping the Joliet operations in a position to helping Caterpillar compete and win in the global marketplace.”

Hard decisions

Bill Robinson, a 44-year plant veteran, was one of the few to admit he voted “yes.”

“It was the hardest thing I ever had to do,” the Joliet resident said.

He said many of his co-workers were having trouble paying mortgages and car payments.

“We couldn’t be out for another six months,” he said.

Average wages at the plant are $26.37 for 456 Tier 1 employees, $17.34 an hour for 191 Tier 2 employees and $14.74 an hour for 91 supplemental workers, who get no benefits.

The contract also calls for market-based wage increases for Tier 2 employees, but only if they are warranted in subsequent years of the contract.

Officials from District 8 of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers would not reveal the contract vote total.

“The membership had their vote, had their say,” said Steve Jones, directing business representative for the union’s District 8. “They decided to go back to work.”

Work resumes Monday

About 100 workers had crossed the picket line before Friday’s vote. The remaining 680 or so workers will return to work in phases starting Monday, Jones said. Machinists who crossed the picket line were not allowed to vote because they were not “members in good standing” with the union.

The last contract vote on May 30 was 504 to 116 against the proposal.

Throughout the strike, Caterpillar has kept production going with mangers and temporary replacement workers at the plant, which is Caterpillar’s global headquarters for hydraulic parts used in its earth-moving and mining equipment around the world.



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