780 Caterpillar Workers Unexpectedly Go on Strike in Illinois

Mike Elk

JOLIET, ILL. — You’re a rotten animal, that’s what you are. You are a piece of a road kill. Stay off my picket line scab!” shouted Caterpillar worker Gareth Beeson, through his Scablaster 3000” megaphone on Sunday. 

Since last Tuesday, May 1, 780 members of Beeson’s union, International Association of Machinists (IAM) Local 851, have been walking the picket line against their employer at Caterpillar’s hydraulics plant in northern Illinois. Local 851 went on strike to protest what they see as an extraordinarily concessionary contract.

Put it this way: Under their proposed contract, I wouldn’t be able to afford to take my kid to the doctor,“ says Beeson. Basically, this contract wouldn’t make this job worth working anymore. I would still pay union dues under this contract, but I wouldn’t have a good union job anymore. ”

Workers say the six-year contract proposed by Caterpillar would nearly double their healthcare costs. In addition, according to IAM Local 851 President Tim O’Brien, it would effectively freeze their wages for six years. The contract would lower pay for certain groups of workers resulting in pay cuts by as much as $8 an hour, O’Brien says. Under the contract, new hires in the second wage tier of the contract, who currently start out at $13 an hour, would instead have their starting wages determined by the market based” formula set by Caterpillar. That could potentially allow the company to pay workers even less, O’Brien says.

The contract also would eliminate language ensuring that healthcare for current retirees would continue. It would also eliminate key seniority provisions and eliminate language that allows workers to have a regular shift, as opposed to shifts that change every week and leave workers with unpredictable schedules.

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,” says O’Brien.

Despite Caterpillar increasing its profits by 44 percent over the last year, the global company has been recently attempting to force concessions on union members. In January, Caterpillar locked out 465 workers, member of the Canadian Auto Workers, at a locomotive facility in London, Ontario, demanding that they cut their pay in half. After workers there were locked out and refused to accept the wage cut, Caterpillar closed the plant and shipped the work to a nonunion facility in newly right-to-work” Indiana.

Workers in Joliet feel that Caterpillar is on the offensive against organized labor company-wide. However, the Joliet workers feel they may have caught Caterpillar on the defensive with their strike. Strikes are rare with only 19 work stoppages occurring last year, according to the Department of Labor, and these workers feel they may have caught the company unprepared at a key parts supplier.

Typically when workers go out on strikes, companies prepare in advance by hiring agencies to provide temporary workers to keep the plant running. It appears that Caterpillar has no contingency plans in place to move scab replacement workers in the plant. For now, the plant is being operated by a contingency workforce of managers.

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,” says O’Brien.

He feels confident that even if Caterpillar could find scabs to work at the plant, it would be difficult because of the skill involved in production. O’Brien says that since the plant is a hydraulics parts supplier for other nearby plants, the strike will hurt Caterpillar’s production at other facilities. He says he’s received reports that temporary layoffs may begin at another Caterpillar plant in Aurora, Ill., represented by the United Auto Workers, due to the lack of parts.

We are going to continue to run our business as normal, meet production levels and provide uninterrupted service to our customers” Caterpillar said in a statement. 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 labor strike.”

However, going out on strike still carries very big risks for IAM workers in Joliet. They will will see their wages slashed to a mere $200 a week in benefits from the union’s strike and defense fund, making it financially difficult for workers to hold out for a long time.

Also, Caterpillar may eventually be able to find workers to replace the skilled workers in Joliet and break the strike. Under the National Labor Relations Act, union members who go out on economic strikes, as in Joliet, can be permanently replaced if they do not return to their jobs. Last year, 840 IAM members at Honeywell plant in Kansas City and almost 200 IAM union members at Manitowoc Cranes in Wisconsin went out on strikes to protest concessionary contracts. After a few weeks, both of the strikes quickly collapsed after both union members and outside workers began to cross the picket lines in large numbers. 

Still, Caterpillar workers in Joliet think the strike is a worthwhile risk to take. They feel confident that they can force the company to back off of some its concessions.

You can only bend people so much until people can’t take it anymore,“ says Caterpillar worker Jeff Yost. With the big attacks on workers [around the country], like here at Caterpillar, the 99% movement and Wisconsin, everybody is starting to see that unions might have some influence after all.”

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Mike Elk wrote for In These Times and its labor blog, Working In These Times, from 2010 to 2014. He is currently a labor reporter at Politico.
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