JOLIET, Ill. - Unabashed corporate greed, is how striking workers are describing Caterpillar's efforts to slash wages and benefits while eliminating pensions and seniority rights at their plant here.
Over 1000 striking workers, their families and supporters rallied in an impressive show of solidarity at the plant gate May 11. They were greeted by a constant blare of horns from passing trucks and motorists.
"This fight is indicative of what's happening across the country," said Steve Jones, International Association of Machinists (IAM) Local 851, directing business representative. "These multinational corporations making multibillions in profits and still trying to steal off the backs of their workers. And I'm proud to see our brothers and sisters standing up and fighting together."
Caterpillar made record profits of $4.5 billion in 2011 and handed out millions of dollars in bonuses to corporate executives. But apparently that's not enough, because the transnational behemoth has launched a drive to break the unions and roll back wages, benefits and seniority rights.
Workers have been on strike since May 1 after the company refused to back off a far reaching concessionary contract proposal.
Caterpillar was also one of the big Illinois-based corporations who bitterly complained over an increase in corporate taxes passed last year in the state legislature. They have threatened to leave the state.
"I couldn't believe this was what they were offering us," said Mike Jones, an assembler tester who has worked for Caterpillar for six years. "They're making record profits and they want to take money from us, cut our pay and increase our health costs. It's never enough with those guys.
Another striker told the Peoples World website that Caterpillar was already engaging in dangerous speedup.
"It's a safety issue. Forced overtime, working you anytime and anywhere. Before the strike they were forcing us to work 6 days a week, 12 hours a day, as long as they wanted. That's a safety issue," he said.
In January Caterpillar locked out workers at a locomotive assembly plant in Ontario, Canada. They then moved the jobs to a non-union plant in Indiana, busting the Canadian UAW local.
Joining the solidarity rally were several workers from the La Grange, Illinois locomotive assembly plant where a concessionary contact was rammed down the worker's throats two months ago almost identical to the one being pushed in Joliet.
"If you want to look at a shop that has these policies look at us and now were hurting," said Dave Rodriguez, sergeant-at-arms for UAW Local 719. "They've taken a lot from us too. No pension or COLA. They took our representation away, limited the time committeemen and stewards have to work on the floor and resolve our issues. They're looking to break (our union).
Rodriguez said the company would bank on fear to break the strike and impose the contract. Many new workers at the LaGrange facility were fearful and voted for the concessions.
Elected officials including Joliet mayor Tom Giarrante, a former president of the Firefighters local, joined the strikers. Giarrante reminded the workers that the firefighters defeated a similar effort at take backs by sticking together.
"I always felt if you want good employee you have to pay them good pay and good benefits," he said. "That's the way we treat our employees.
"I don't understand the seniority issue. It's just an issue to break your union. You've got to stick together."
Tammy Duckworth and Bill Foster also joined the strikers, Democrats running for US Congress in two of the national battleground congressional races to regain a Democratic majority.
Foster said there have been two great financial crises in US history and the thing they both have in common is runaway corporate greed.
"Trickle down policies failed. For America to be strong, the middle class must be strong and that's what this is all about," said Foster. "It's never wrong to stand up for decent wages and benefits you can count on. "
"Let me get this right," said Phil Gruber, IAM general vice president, Midwest Territory. "The CEO pulls in millions in bonus and yet you the workers who built this company and made it profitable are being asked to make concessions. Unions are under full attack. We will not let them break our spirit or our unions!"
Please send food or monetary assistance for the strikers at Caterpillar to:
Local Lodge 851, 23157 S. Thomas Dillon Dr., Ste. B, Channahon, IL 60410
Photo:Caterpiller strike solidarity rally, May 11. John Bachtell/PW