Caterpillar Workers Return to the Job
August 21, 2012 8:34 am
The bitter 15-week strike at a Caterpillar factory in Joliet, IN has ended, and the 780 striking workers are barely better off for it. The striking workers voted in favor of Caterpillar’s “Last, Best and Final Offer” contract Friday, going against the wishes of their local, International Association of Machinists Local Lodge 851. Union officials on the district level had recommended striking workers take the deal, as a sweeter one was unlikely to come.
The New York Times reports:
Tim O’Brien, president of the striking local, Machinists Lodge Local Lodge 851, called for rejecting the contract, saying the Joliet workers did not walk the picket lines for nearly four months and endure such sacrifice to settle for a stingy deal.
But Steve Jones, the top official in Machinists District 8 in Burr Ridge, Ill., and the union leader who negotiated the settlement with Caterpillar, said the deal was the best the union could get.
“If there was a better agreement out there to be had, we would have taken it,” Mr. Jones said on Wednesday after reaching the deal.
The striking workers had been living on subsistence wages since May 1st, and 100 of the 780 workers had already crossed the picket line to return to work. The sticking point for the union was the incredibly harsh terms of the new contract, which included a six-year pay freeze, conversion of pension benefits to a less desirable 401(k) plan and greater employee health care contributions. The recently approved contract contains the pay freeze and the higher healthcare contributions, but froze pension benefits for the more senior two-thirds of workers. The new contract also gives workers a $3,100 ratification bonus — mere scraps in light of Caterpillar’s record-breaking $4.9 billion 2011 earnings, and CEO Douglas Oberhelman’s $16.9 million take-home pay last year.
Caterpillar refused to negotiate on terms, stating that their manufacturing workers were paid above fair-market wages. This same logic had the company commanding workers in a London, Ontario plant to take a 55% wage cut earlier this year. When the Ontario workers went on strike, Caterpillar shuttered the plant, leaving 450 workers out of a job. In justifying their refusal to budge in Joliet, Caterpillar also pulled the “rainy day” card, stating they needed to reduce labor costs now should profits tank in the future.
Robert Bruno, professor of labor and employment relations at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, spoke to the Christian Science Monitor about how companies like Caterpillar are undoing the unspoken contract between workers and companies:
Through many of the most prosperous years of American manufacturing, beginning in the 1950s, there was a “strong linkage” between the well being of workers and the prosperity of the companies they worked for, Mr. Bruno says. Workers prospered when their companies did, and they accepted concessions when their companies faltered.
“It was a path to social mobility and into the middle class,” he says.
With private sector union membership at just seven percent, the strikers’ forced capitulation is a terrible indicator for workers and wages in the manufacturing sector.
Image from here