July 27, 2012 Chicago Sun-Times
Champagne corks were likely popping last week at Caterpillar global headquarters in Peoria when the company announced second-quarter profits climbed 67 percent.
Business writers reported that Caterpillar’s had rising sales in “every region worldwide” and that “higher sales volume and prices provided a $2 billion boost” for the corporation.
But outside of its sprawling plant on Channahon Road in Joliet, some of the workers whose labor contributed to those gains were trying to figure out how they were going to get by on $150 a week strike benefits.
The International Association of Machinists, Local Lodge 851 since May 1, has been on strike against Caterpillar, the world’s largest manufacturer of construction and mining equipment.
About 780 workers walked off the job over contract disputes that include pay raises, higher health care costs and reduced pension benefits.
The standoff is being viewed as a critical test for U.S. labor relations because Caterpillar is asking for concessions despite raking in $4.9 billion in profits last year.
But if Caterpillar’s business strategy is a model for other corporations, then America’s workers are in trouble.
“It’s corporate greed, plain and simple” said Bruce Boaz, 57, of Marseilles, a union steward. Boaz has worked for Caterpillar for 39 years, and intends to retire when he sets foot in the plant again.
“They don’t care. They don’t care about us anymore. They don’t want to share with the people that got them to where they are and that is all of us out here,” he said, as he was passing out the latest union notices to about a dozen picketers Friday.
“They want us to sign a six-year contract and give us nothing.”
Caterpillar officials have offered “market-based” raises, but point out that health-care costs are rising across the country.
The ongoing strike puts both sides at ground zero of a divisive debate raging across the country over the plight of the middle class.
In Washington, Congress is still fighting over tax cuts for the wealthy, and in most states, the middle class is struggling to afford health care and rising tuition costs.
Nowhere is the line between the haves and the have-nots more starkly drawn than at Caterpillar. Union members not only have to suffer the indignity of seeing replacement workers being bused in to do their jobs, but of watching the company’s profits roll in while their bank accounts are drying up.
“You don’t have health care; you’re not paying the bills,” said Tom Eley, 40, who has worked at the plant as an assembler for 19 years.
“I had to call about the mortgage, ComEd and Toyota. If your wife backs you up, it’s easier. You can’t allow yourself to get worn down,” he said.
“We had savings, but our savings are dwindling,” said Irene Stiller, who has worked as an assembler at the plant for 39 years.
“I’m running out of my dipping into money. I’m going to Ohio this weekend to sell my jewelry to my nephew.”
Despite company officials saying Caterpillar has put its last offer on the table, the striking workers have vowed to hold the picket line.
Many of the strikers believe they aren’t only fighting for their jobs, but for their way of life.
After nearly two decades of working as an assembler, Eley said he has managed to provide a modest 1,200 square foot home for his wife and teenage children, medical insurance and the other necessities that put him solidly into the middle class. “We are not living high on the hog,” he told me as he stood with other workers manning the picket line.
“I work for a Fortune 500 company. All we want to do is be able to is work hard and come home to a little house. We work 50 to 60 hours a week, and we are just getting by.”
As the strike drags into its 13th week, the strikers’ early resolve is being sorely tested.
Although a lot of people honk their horns as they drive past as a sign of solidarity, others express visible disdain.
“Some people are driving by and giving us the finger because they think we are being greedy,” Eley told me.
The strikers say they are able to hold on because of the support they are getting from friends, family and their communities.
Still, even without the profit bombshell, this showdown between a global conglomerate and union members is extremely lopsided.
While Caterpillar is free to bring in replacement workers, referred to by union workers as “scabs,” and keep making hydraulic components, the strikers can’t find even part-time work to tide them over until the labor issues are resolved.
“We are starting to see that we can’t get other jobs,” noted Kirk Harrington, 41, a materials handler.
“We are applying for jobs, but once they find out you work for Caterpillar, they don’t want to have anything to do with it,” he said.
The inevitable question is: “When the strike ends are we going to go back to work?”
Talk about a rock and a hard place.
“It is class warfare, really an attack on the middle class,” Eley said.
“There is a bigger picture, and we are just doing our part.”