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As Caterpillar strike drags on, donations mount for union workers

Vickey Pogliano an employee Caterpillar for 17 years is happy hear support offered striking workers from SEIU Healthcare with $25000

Vickey Pogliano, an employee at Caterpillar for 17 years, is happy to hear of the support offered to striking workers from SEIU Healthcare with a $25,000 contribution. | Larry Ruehl~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: September 9, 2012 6:17AM

While contract talks between union machinists and Caterpillar Inc. remain stalled, more donations are rolling in for workers who have been on strike at Cat’s Joliet plant since May 1.

One day after U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin visited the picket line, members of the SEIU Health Care Illinois and Indiana presented Local Lodge 851 Machinists Union officials with a check for $25,000 Tuesday. The donation by SEIU, which represents 91,000 health care and child care providers, boosts the strike fund to more than $90,000, machinists union president Timothy O’Brien said.

“Our core membership is still holding strong,” O’Brien said. “And things like this (donation) really help.”

Flora Johnson, chairwoman of the SEIU executive board, addressed machinists on the picket line.

“Solidarity is the golden rule of the labor movement,” she said as cars and trucks whooshed by her on U.S. 6.

“It means that a threat to workers anywhere is a threat to workers everywhere,” she said. “Let’s make no mistake these Caterpillar workers are fighting not just for their own future, they’re fighting for the well being of working families who have been shortchanged by corporate greed.”

The Joliet plant drew national media attention recently when Caterpillar announced record corporate profits at the same time it’s playing hardball with the union. While Peoria-based Caterpillar maintains it is willing to negotiate, officials have said they will do so only when the union becomes “realistic” and that it’s last proposal was the company’s “last, best and final offer.”

About 800 machinists went on strike after their seven-year contract expired on April 30. Since then, union membershave overwhelmingly rejected two contract offers that included no guaranteed raises and increases health care contributions as well as the elimination of a defined benefit pension program going forward.

Machinists at the Joliet plant have three pay tiers. According to the company, 456 Tier 1 workers hired before May 2, 2005, earn an average $26.37; 191 Tier 2 workers hired after May 2, 2005, earn an average $17.34 an hour; and 91 supplemental workers earn an average $14.74 an hour.

Caterpillar officials have said that the proposed six-year contract would include “market-based” pay adjustments for Tier II and supplemental workers. The moves are necessary to keep Caterpillar globally competitive, they said.

Union officials said they don’t want raises for the highest paid group, but instead would like to see health care contributions stay the same so compensation doesn’t decrease.

During the strike, workers receive $150 a week from the union, and are not eligible for unemployment benefits from the state. Food and monetary donations are going to a food pantry in the union’s Channahon headquarters.

“We appreciate all the help and solidarity and support that we can get,” said Steve Jones, directing business representative for the machinist union’s District 8. “It can only help us continue this fight against Caterpillar and prevail in this very difficult task that we have in front of us.”

While officials, reporters and photographers come and go, machinists are on the picket line every day.

“We’re holding up pretty good,” said Richard Mathus, who has worked at the plant for almost 19 years.

About 89 workers have crossed the picket line so far, and Mathus said those workers have made the wrong choice.

“I could use some money, but I’m holding strong,” Mathus said.

Brian Findlay, another 18-year-plus veteran, agreed.

“If I have to, I’ll find another job. I won’t go back in there.”

O’Brien said Caterpillar’s actions would hurt the middle class.

“But if you eliminate the middle class, who is going to buy the goods and services?” O’Brien said. “Who is going to buy the homes? Who is going to buy the cars? And that’s what they’re eliminating if they succeed.”

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