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Striking Joliet Caterpillar workers reject latest offer

Shorewood resident Mike 'Hammer' Pesek holds an American flag as striking Caterpillar machinists from Local Lodge 851 vote new contract

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

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Updated: July 6, 2012 9:07AM

Striking machinists at Joliet’s Caterpillar Inc. plant have rejected the company’s latest contract proposal, a union official said.

Workers voted 504-116 against the Peoria-based company’s latest contract proposal, said Steve Jones, the union’s directing business agent.

Caterpillar worker Mike “Hammer” Pesek of Shorewood summed up the mood of the striking workers after Wednesday’s vote, which was taken by paper ballot.

“I would rather be unemployed than Caterpillar slave labor,” he said.

“The last contract we were in was a seven year deal with no increase, no raise,” Pesek 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.”

A Caterpillar spokesman said the company would comment on the vote later Wednesday.

Hundreds of workers showed up at a Joliet union hall to cast ballots.

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.

Caterpillar had offered the 780 workers a new six-year pact, but union members overwhelmingly rejected it on April 29 with 94 percent voting against the offer. Eighty-two percent of the workers rejected the revised deal Wednesday. 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 deal offered 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 “most Americans” are getting.

The union’s bargaining committee urged the workers to vote against the latest proposal, union members reported as they waited outside the Local 150 Operating Engineers hall in Joliet for the vote results.

The company modified what it had said was its “last, best and final” offer, but workers said the changes were minor. Changes 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.

Employees said the performance reward was “unfeasible,” because the production rate included in the contract had never been reached at the plant before.

“They 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.”

Crossed the line

About a dozen machinists have crossed the picket line and are back working at the plant. Johnson said they should have worked harder to find interim jobs to supplement the $150 a week the union is paying the striking workers.

“There’s jobs out there,” he said.

Pesek said union members who crossed the picket line could be kicked out of the union and lose their jobs.

“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.

The Caterpillar plant on U.S. 6 in Joliet makes hydraulic components for tractors that are assembled elsewhere. The Peoria-based company has said production at the Joliet plant won’t be disrupted by the strike. Caterpillar is staffing the plant now with supervisors and retired supervisors.

The plant has about 1,200 other employees who are not affected by the contract negotiations.

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