Caterpillar Machinists Strike Is Two Weeks Old & Holding Steady

"Caterpillar has work plans, processes, policies and people ready to be deployed in the event of any business interruption, whether it is a tornado, fire or a strike."—Caterpillar spokesperson Rusty Dunn: April 30, 2012

Thanks for nothing, Rusty Dunn. You just equated 780 striking Caterpillar workers to a potentially disastrous tornado or fire. The strike began on May 1 with peaceful picketing by the International Association of Machinists (IAM) Lodge 851.

A few days later the union called for a solidarity rally in front of the Caterpillar plant.Mr. Dunn, I was out at the International Association of Machinists (IAM) Lodge 851 strike rally on Friday May 11 near Joliet IL. I saw a sea of a red union shirts. I heard speeches and I listened to what the striking Cat workers had to say. I walked among people who made Caterpillar a global leader in heavy construction equipment. They are builders, not wreckers. I saw anger, but not rage. I saw quiet determination, but not fury. I saw human beings who work hard and solve complex production problems everyday. They are worth every penny that Caterpillar has been paying them and more. Rusty Dunn, you owe them a heartfelt apology.


Cat Workers

Caterpillar had been paying the Joliet area  workers at rates from $13 to $28 an hour depending upon skills and years of service. The “best and final offer” from Caterpillar management would have frozen wages for the next 6 years and allowed Caterpillar to pay market rate for new hires. This means that Caterpillar can slash wages according to its definition of "market rate." This two-tier wage system divides older workers against younger workers and weakens the labor movement, its obvious intention.

But according to Lodge 851 President Tim O’Brien, the contract offer was so outrageously bad that the strike vote carried by an unprecedented 94%, “Normally in the past, they could buy some votes by making the contract better for younger workers or better for older workers. With this contract though … everything was takeaways.” 

The workers even rejected a thinly disguised bribe of a one-time $5000 signing bonus if they would agree to Caterpillar’s demands.

The company offer allows Caterpillar to end health care for current retirees and sharply raise healthcare costs for those now working. Workers would also be subject to arbitrary scheduling so that they can never predict when they will be working. This places a great burden on workers with family responsibilities. While at the strike rally, I observed several Cat workers on their cell phones figuring out today’s complex family scheduling with its unexpected surprises and outright emergencies.

Cat Workers

Caterpillar claims its wage, work rule and benefit cuts are necessary to stay “competitive” in the global market. Yet Cat has recently gained market share in the mining industry, especially after purchasing rival Bucyrus in 2011. North American companies are placing orders to replace aging bulldozers and excavators. Caterpillar is rushing to fill an order backlog of $30 billion dollars and some companies will have to wait until 2014 to get their new heavy equipment. As a result, Cat profits posted a  record breaking 29% increase in the first quarter of 2012.

Cat CEO Doug Oberhelman has stated that "We're seeing strong global demand for most mining products and significant growth in replacement demand for products in the United States, which more than offset slowing in China and Brazil.” Oberhelman’s executive compensation rose nearly 60% in 2011, earning him $16.9 million in 2011.

Caterpillar is competing just fine.

It takes great skill to build hydraulic parts for a bulldozer or mining truck. The job also requires custom work and special modifications. This is the kind of work that the Joliet employees do on a day to day basis.

At the May 11 rally, a Cat employee who works as a blacksmith told me how he runs a hot forge to create individually built tools and parts. He is given a problem to solve, sits down, studies it, makes the drawings, builds what is needed and tests it. With a gleam in his eye, he told me,” Not even the foreman really understands what I do.” Another Cat worker told me about the razor thin tolerances of the parts he makes and the programming that goes into them. Many of these workers have been there for decades.

There is a genuine creativity and artistry that goes into crafting solutions to the problems given to a skilled machinist. It takes experience and a pride in one’s work that has been handed down for generations, going back to the first iron smiths of ancient times. 

One cannot simply walk into Caterpillar’s Joliet facility and do these kinds of jobs. As one Cat striker told me, “I wouldn’t trust anything coming out of that plant now that we’re not in there.”

According to some accounts, Caterpillar did  2 weeks worth of hasty  strike preparations, but union president Jim O’Brien still thinks,”They never thought we would walk out. … We caught them with their pants down. The last time we had a strike at his plant was in 1985.” 

Because of the technical nature of their work and Caterpillar’s backlog of orders, the machinists do have some bargaining leverage. At the strike rally, both the mayor of Joliet and the Will County executive appeared and promised to help pressure for a fair settlement. Judging by the number of truck, car and motorcycle horns that were blowing in support of the strike as drivers passed the May 11 rally, the machinists have considerable local sympathy.

But no one I talked to said that this would be an easy strike. It is unclear what pressure local politicians can bring upon a global corporation, even one based in nearby Peoria IL. Local sympathy is good for strike morale and can translate into food donations and neighborly assistance, but there is no evidence that the IAM is going beyond this level of community support. There were speeches at the rally about how their Caterpillar union brothers and sisters around the world meant that the strikers were not alone, although exactly what their brothers and sisters might do was left unsaid.

The workers of IAM Lodge 851 did not go on strike May 1 on a careless whim. They clearly believe they can win against a viciously anti-union company. During the the 1990’s Illinois labor “War Zone” when there were several industrial strikes unfolding at the same time, the UAW fought a bitter 17 month strike at multiple Caterpillar facilities that saw in-plant rallies, wildcats and creative publicity tactics. It ended with many UAW members giving up and crossing the picket lines until the UAW leadership ended the walkout. Labor historian Sharon Smith wrote about the aftermath in 1998:

Even a month later, although the contract was accepted by a 54 percent margin, significant sections of workers voted it down  including 71 percent of the Decatur local. Many Cat workers have lost homes and cars and suffered broken friendships and families as the sides hardened over the years. But this has only increased their determination to keep on fighting. "I go to work with anger every day. Most people do,"said Wayne Schmidt, who has worked almost 30 years at the Peoria plant. This was echoed by Mike Moats, who is just one year away from retirement but voted against the contract in February. '"I'll fight Caterpillar till the day I die. I'd love to get my job back, but I won't settle for this deal."

The same UAW locals that had fought Caterpillar in the 1990’s accepted concessionary contracts in 2012 rather than risk another confrontation. Last winter, Caterpillar locked out members of the Canadian Auto Workers union when they refused to accept  pay cuts of up to 50% at Cat subsidiary Electro-Motive. Electro-Motive had received $5 million in tax breaks that Canadian PM Stephen Harper announced from the factory floor. This was before Electro-Motive was bought by Caterpillar. The work will be moved to the Muncie plant in the right-to-work state of Indiana. The move stunned Canadians across the political spectrum.

Cat workers know the company’s history. But as Cat worker Jeff Yost explains,”You can only bend people so much until people can’t take it anymore. With the big attacks on workers, like here at Caterpillar, the 99% movement and Wisconsin, everybody is starting to see that unions might have some influence after all.”

Cat Workers

Cat workers understand that the company’s attack on them has implications beyond the plant. IAM activist Bill McCarl made this point to me when we discussed the regional impact if Caterpillar’s offensive is successful. The smaller towns surrounding the plant like Channahon, Morris, Braidwood & even the city of Joliet will be adversely affected. Small businesses need the money that well-paid workers spend. Schools, emergency services and basic social needs depend upon their tax contribution. Mortgages need to be paid to prevent foreclosure and blight. Families will be stressed and parents will miss important family milestones because of forced overtime and arbitrary scheduling.

McCarl also pointed out that if the plant is closed, lower and middle management will also suffer as he doubts Caterpillar would transfer them.

It’s especially shameful that Caterpillar is based in Peoria IL, but has so little regard for the working people of the state. Yes, Spokesperson Rusty Dunn and CEO Doug Oberhelman, there is a destructive force reminiscent of a a fire or tornado loose inside of Caterpillar, but it’s not coming from the workers. It’s coming from Cat’s top management with its socio-pathic corporate greed. 

You need to heed the words written by one of the wisest leaders to emerge from the Prairie State, a man known throughout the world for his decency and humanity.

Labor is prior to, and independent of, capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration.–President Abraham Lincoln, December 3, 1861

 It’s time Caterpillar top management and stockholders showed some respect and humility before the thousands of Cat workers and their families who are the real heroes of the company.

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

Union Jobs


Sources Consulted

Union workers at Cat plant in Joliet poised to strike by Steve Tarter

780 Caterpillar Workers Unexpectedly Go on Strike in Illinois by Mike Elk

Striking Caterpillar workers rally at Joliet plant by Bob Okun

Caterpillar workers strike; rejected signing bonus edited by Lisa Von Ahn and Gunna Dickson

Strikers blast Caterpillar greed, reject concessions by John Bechtell

Compensation for Cat's Oberhelman jumps 60% by Alejandra Cancino

Caterpillar Profits Soar, Boosts View by  Zacks Equity Research

Striking Caterpillar workers in Illinois speak on their struggle by the WSWS reporting team

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