Striking Cat workers reject contract proposal
By Cindy Wojdyla Cain firstname.lastname@example.org May 30, 2012 11:52AM
Shorewood resident Mike "Hammer" Pesek holds an American flag as striking Caterpillar machinists from Local Lodge 851 vote on a new contract at the operating engineers hall Wednesday, May 30, 2012, at 1050 North East Frontage Rd. in Joliet. | Matthew Grotto~Sun-Times Media
Updated: July 6, 2012 9:04AM
JOLIET — Striking machinist Mike “Hammer” Pesek summed up the mood on Wednesday as hundreds of union workers packed into a Joliet union hall to vote on a new contract proposal from Caterpillar Inc.
“I would rather be unemployed than Caterpillar slave labor,” he said.
Workers voted 504-116 against the Peoria-based company’s latest contract proposal, and the month-long strike will continue, said Steve Jones, the union’s directing business agent.
“The last contract we were in was a seven-year deal with no increase, no raise,” Pesek of Shorewood added. “And now they want us to take a six-year deal with no increase. I’m sorry, I’m not looking to get rich. But I’ve been working for this company for 18 years, I think I deserve 25 cents an hour as an increase.”
Caterpillar spokesman Rusty Dunn said company officials believe the latest contract offer was “fair, reasonable and comprehensive” and the deal will remain on the table until June 10. After that date, Caterpillar will revert back to its original offer, which was rejected by workers on April 29.
“It is unfortunate that the union’s unworkable and impractical approach to these labor negotiations has led to this result,” Dunn wrote in an email.
He said the union has not offered a realistic proposal so far and he added that the company was prepared to take its contingency workforce, made up of supervisors and retired supervisors, to the next level.
“Not only are our employees working safely and productively — they are identifying inefficiencies, improving processes and meeting our customers’ expectations.”
Strike began May 1
Machinists from Local Lodge 851 of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers went out on strike at the Joliet plant on May 1 after their seven-year contract expired.
The Caterpillar plant on Route 6 in Joliet makes hydraulic components for tractors that are assembled elsewhere.
Caterpillar had originally offered the 780 workers a new six-year pact, but union members overwhelmingly rejected it.
Ninety-four percent of the workers who voted in April rejected the original offer. Eighty-two percent of the workers who voted Wednesday rejected the revised deal. Jones said the drop is to be expected.
“A month on the street will do that to a group,” said Jones, who added that the workers were still strong on the basic issues.
Union officials said the Caterpillar offer provided no raises, eliminated the defined benefits pension program, weakened seniority rights and required machinists to pay higher contributions for health care at a time when the company is making record profits.
The company has said it is trying to keep costs down so it can remain competitive in a global market and is willing to offer workers market rate wages and the type of benefits “many Americans” are getting.
The union’s bargaining committee urged workers to reject the latest proposal, union members reported as they waited outside the Local 150 Operating Engineers Hall in Joliet for the paper ballots to be counted.
The atmosphere outside the hall was almost festive with music blaring from a car and workers chatting away and joking with each other. Many machinists dressed in red shirts as a sign of solidarity.
Workers said changes from the last contract offer to the new one were minor. The new offer included a $1,000 signing bonus, a limit of one year on how long workers could be “loaned out” to other shifts and a performance reward.
Caterpillar offered $700 performance rewards for the months of July, August and September if a certain production rate was reached. Employees said the rate was set so high it was an impossible goal.
“There wasn’t really much new,” said Greg Johnson of Morris. “It’s still a lot of take-aways.”
Paul Patrickus of Downers Grove said the contract didn’t reflect the high production level at the Joliet plant.
“As a matter of fact, it’s insulting,” he said as he held his 7-month-old daughter, Scarlette in his arms.
Dan Governale of Joliet has been at the plant 16 years.
“I believe it’s the company’s way of finding out how strong our resolve is, by the results of the vote,” he said. “They’re just trying to feel us out to see where we are.”
About a dozen machinists have crossed the picket line and are back working at the plant, union members said. Johnson said they should have worked harder to find interim jobs to supplement the $150 a week the union is paying the striking workers.
Pesek said union members who crossed the picket line could be kicked out of the union and lose their jobs if the strike ends.
“There will be a tribunal held for each individual union member,” Pesek said.
Some workers were ready for the strike.
“I’ve been through three contracts,” Governale said. “I saw this coming and I prepared for it — thank God.”
Sharlyn Bokus of Morris said the contract offer was “bait” to try to lure workers back to the plant so Caterpillar can catch up on back orders. She said she’s worked very hard to become a machinist.
“It makes me feel happy that all of us are in the same frame of mind,” she said of Wednesday’s vote. “We’re looking to have a better life for ourselves. I don’t want to struggle.”
Donna Rogers of Dolton agreed.
“If we all stick together and hang in there, it will be OK,” she said.