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Joliet Machinists approve Caterpillar contract offer

Vickey Pogliano cries as she is comforted by Tom Vincent outside IBEW hall after members International AssociatiMachinists Aerospace Local Lodge

Vickey Pogliano cries as she is comforted by Tom Vincent outside of the IBEW hall after members of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Local Lodge 851 voted to approve a tentative six-year agreement with Caterpillar in Joliet, IL on Friday August 17, 2012. | Matt Marton~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: September 19, 2012 6:10AM

As machinists rushed out of a Joliet 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 to bear for Vickey Pogliano, who burst into tears outside the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Union hall 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 the contract was approved.

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

The contract was a bitter pill to swallow after Caterpillar reported record profits recently, she added.

“The CEO makes $17 million and they’re going to take our pensions away,” she said. “I can’t even believe it.”

Pogliano said the contract tarnishes what was once a golden opportunity.

“I was always so proud to work at Caterpillar,” she said. “And now I’m disgusted.”

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 in 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.

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

If profitable companies aren’t willing to reward workers who got them there, that will limit the number of people who can work their way up to the middle class, he said.

“If you can’t do well in this company now in these conditions — forget it,” Bruno said.

He also said other corporations will watch what Caterpillar has done and mimic it.

“People would have to be naive to think other large employers are going to ignore what they were able to do.”

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,” said Robinson of Joliet.

He said many of his coworkers were having trouble paying mortgages and car payments.

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

Irene Stiller, who was the second worker to cast her vote, said the contract was “garbage.”

“The cost of living is going up, food’s going up, gas is going up, our check is going to go down,” said Stiller, a New Lenox resident has worked at the plant for 39 years.

Average wages at the plant are $26.37 an hour 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 district. “They decided to go back to work.”

Caterpillar spokesman Rusty Dunn said the new deal, which replaces an expired seven-year contract, provides employees with competitive wages and benefits, while allowing the company to remain globally and locally competitive.

“We are pleased with the outcome of the vote and certainly happy to have our employees coming back to work,” said Tim Flaherty, general manager of advanced component systems operations at the plant.

Work resumes Monday

About 100 workers had crossed the picket line prior to 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.

In the last contract vote on May 30, the proposal was defeated 504 to 116.

Throughout the strike, Caterpillar officials have said they need to keep labor costs down to remain globally competitive and their contract changes only reflect what many Americans are experiencing. The company 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.

The union provided a food pantry to help its members and they received $150 a week in strike pay.

During the contract battle, which drew national media attention, machinists said they were fighting to maintain a middle class; Caterpillar said it was working to stay profitable. The company recently reported record profits, which further rankled rank and file machinists and seemed to harden their resolve — until Friday.

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