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Caterpillar machinists strike at Joliet plant

George Zartuche yells driver turning inmaentrance during machinists unistrike outside Caterpillar plant off Route 6 Tuesday May 1 2012 Joliet.

George Zartuche yells at a driver turning into the main entrance during a machinists union strike outside the Caterpillar plant off Route 6 Tuesday, May 1, 2012, in Joliet. | Matthew Grotto~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: June 3, 2012 8:10AM

About 800 union workers who rejected Caterpillar Inc.’s latest contract offer walked off the job Tuesday at a plant in Joliet.

Workers with picket signs lined up outside the plant early Tuesday, just hours after their contract expired. The employees, part of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, are asking for better wages and health care. They voted Sunday to reject the Peoria-based company’s latest contract offer.

“About 94 percent of the members voted against it,” Steve Jones, who is business manager for union’s Lodge 851.

It’s time for the “little guy” to stand up, union machinist Bill McCarl II said Tuesday morning as he walked a picket line in front of Caterpillar Inc.’s Joliet plant.

“We’ve been lying down too long,” said McCarl said, a 19-year veteran of the plant. “All the corporations are doing is knocking us down, and we’ve got to keep getting back up. It’s time to stand up and fight for our rights.”

Production at the plant, which makes hydraulics and other components for mining trucks, tractors and other machines, won’t be disrupted, the company said in a statement. The plant has about 1,200 other employees who are not affected by the contract negotiations.

“We are going to continue to run our business as normal, meet production levels and provide uninterrupted service to our customers. Caterpillar has work plans, processes, policies and people ready to be deployed in the event of any business interruption, whether it is a tornado, fire or a labor strike.”

Negotiations between the union and Caterpillar have been running for about a month. The company’s most recent offer would have held wages at current levels for six years, Jones said, and more than doubled employees’ health care costs.

“Essentially, Caterpillar is making record profits, $1.5 billion in the first quarter,” Jones said. “But they’re taking away from the workers.”

A Caterpillar spokesman, Rusty Dunn, called the strike vote unfortunate.

Steve Jones, directing business representative for the union’s District 8, said the company’s final offer would have:

 Provided no pay raises for six years while health insurance costs would double.

 Failed to put the retirees health insurance payment plan in writing.

 Stripped away seniority rights.

 Prevented Tier II workers from transitioning to the higher-paid Tier I.

 Eliminated cost of living increases tied to inflation rates for Tier I workers and failed to provide them for Tier II workers.

 Allowed “supplemental” workers to work at the plant for two years with no benefits.

 Frozen and eliminated the pension program and shifted everyone to a 401(k)-type plan.

Dunn would not comment on the union’s specific concerns.

“It would not be appropriate to respond to specific questions or issues being raised on the picket line,” he said in an email. “As we have stated, the company’s last, best and final offer presented to union negotiators last Friday is one that we believe is a fair, reasonable and comprehensive proposal. We continue to be open to resuming discussions whenever the union is prepared to deal realistically with the issues before us.”

Contributing: AP, Herald News

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