Caterpillar strikers carry on David vs. Goliath battle

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JOLIET, Ill. -Steve Heino has been on strike longer than he was working the grinder for Caterpillar. The 21 year old worked for two and a half months at his "first real job," when the company forced a strike with a draconian contract offer that would slash wages, increase health care costs and demolish pensions. Workers rejected the offer by a vote of 504-116.

"It's not fun. But I'd rather be out here than in there," he said during his Aug. 1 shift on the picket line outside the plant.

Some 780 members of International Association of Machinists Lodge 851 have been on strike since May 1. White, black, Latino, younger and older, men and women are holding the line for themselves and the wider community.

Heino's friends are surprised the strike has lasted so long. "Still?" they ask incredulously when he tells them.

Caterpillar is out to bust the union and drive down workers' standard of living because of corporate greed, strikers say. The workers say they are "fighting a giant" like David vs. Goliath, but David doesn't have his slingshot.

On the backs of its workers, Caterpillar raked in $4.9 billion in profits last year. CEO Doug Oberhelman took home nearly $17 million.

Caterpillar claims workers make too much and want a "market" based pay scale. Currently, the highest pay is $26 an hour. New hires, like Heino, start at $13.90.

At the casino down the street here, workers - mostly part time positions - make anywhere $4.95-$11.55, according to one job search website.

Nineteen-year veteran Tommie Stallings takes exception to market pay.

"There's no other company around here that makes this stuff and sells it at millions of dollars a piece. There's nothing around here to compare it to. John Deere is the only thing close but they don't make the big machines. And they're getting benefits, they're getting raises," he said.

"We didn't ask for anything. We just want to keep what we got," he said.

In addition to slashing wages, Caterpillar's current contract offer would more than triple family health insurance costs - from $150 per month to $500 per month. Co-pays and out of pockets would also go up, and workers could expect to pay a yearly three percent increase on premiums - another wage cut, they said.

Caterpillar is the largest employer in Illinois and recently received millions in tax breaks to stay in the state.

"They want to drive wages down and control it. They want to pay what mom and pop shops are paying," said Jim, a machinist at Caterpillar for 20 years in November. He didn't want to give his last name, worried about company retribution.

"If Caterpillar had its way everybody out here would be making minimum wage," he said.

The picket line was noisy with the honks from passing cars and strikers shouting through bullhorns at replacement workers -scabs -driving in and out of the plant.

Strikers said the company recruits replacements from Alabama, New Jersey, California and other states, puts them up in local hotels and buses them in. The rate of injury is high and every week an ambulance comes into the plant, strikers said.

Few union members have crossed the line, less than the 116 who voted for the concession contract.

Picket line leader Marion Modesitt has been working for 38 years as a machinist and being on strike is "really scary."

"They are forcing me to retire," Modesitt said. Caterpillar's strategy is to force out the most senior - and therefore highest paid workers - to achieve their "market" wage system, she said.

If she doesn't retire, Modesitt said, she would lose a one-time severance pay of $27,000 and be at the mercy of management who could tell her to work any shift, anywhere in the plant and refuse her overtime.

Modesitt joked that when she went out on strike she texted her adult children, "On strike. Need money."

They answered with "How much you need, Mom?" she said. "I told them I don't need it yet."

Strikers receive $150 a week from the union. Many of them are looking for part-time jobs to make ends meet, but employers are reluctant to hire the strikers.

"It's definitely hard. Especially when you need your two incomes for a family to run a household," said Rose Bain, who has two years at Caterpillar. Flanked by her teenage daughter, Barn said, "I've been out there looking for part-time jobs."

"We're a family out here," she said, "fighting for what you think is right."

The strikers have received support from other unions and the wider community. But still more is needed, they said, especially from elected officials.

"Unless we can get our government involved in this, I think we're in trouble," picket line leader Modesitt said. "We need them to put some pressure on Caterpillar. They give them these tax breaks to stay in Illinois. OK, it's time to put the pressure on. 'Hey, we did this for you - you make it worth our while,'" she said.

"Because $13 an hour isn't saving our communities."

Photo: (PW/John Bachtell)

 

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  • Greedy unions demand middle class wages for minimum wage jobs.

    Posted by , 08/10/2012 7:21pm (2 years ago)

  • Tax breaks to stay in Illinois? How does Illinois compare to surrounding states in that regard? Does Modesitt believe that Illinois is doing Cat a FAVOR by the only partial tax equalization its offered to induce Cat to stay in place?

    That said, perhaps "$13 an hour isn't saving our communities", but I suspect it's doing a lot more "saving" than the ZERO dollars an hour that parties like Modesitt have to offer, or what the strikers are earning now. I would also suspect that there are other communities who would welcome an injection of "$13 an hour" jobs, just like a community in a neighbor state of illinois' did when Cat closed its London, ON plant recently.

    Posted by KenM, 08/08/2012 6:28am (2 years ago)

  • Livning as do in the "Rustbowl", The Machinist's strike at Cat is everybody's fight.... Thier the first in take-backs, and in Illinois, and somesurroundng States, they "set the pace" for Contracts.
    Cat Workers suffer...everybody suffers. For a long time thier main target was the U.A.W. , the Machinists, not so much...
    We allneed to pitch in and suport them A) Heavy equipment is about the last Dog to die as far as Heavy industry in the Midwest. B) I's still the "peg" of comparison for Working Class wages, both Union and Non-Union in the effected and surounding Communities.
    We've lost so much in the Midwest, wee go to get David that Slingshot.... We literally can't afford to lose any more.

    Solidarity with the Machinists!!!!

    Please help wherever you can.

    Posted by Randall Smith, 08/07/2012 8:25pm (2 years ago)

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