“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.
This is the scene in Joliet, Illinois where 780 Caterpillar workers decided they would rather strike than accept a new contract with concessions they viewed as too steep. According to Mike Elk, who covered the story for In These Times, the strike has caught the increasingly anti-union company off guard and workers are fed up enough with management’s tactics to stay in it for the long haul. Despite the war on labor, only 19 work stoppages occurred last year according to the Department of Labor.
“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.
Strangely, Caterpillar’s $44 million in profits last year have increased their anti-worker stance, making concessions even harder to swallow for employees. In January, when 465 workers were locked out of a London, Ontario Caterpillar plant, the company decided to pack up and leave for fresh “Right-to-Work” blood in Indiana.
But striking workers question whether the company has sufficient qualified replacement workers.
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.”
The odds are slightly against the workers as the realities of missing paychecks may soon catch up to them and labor laws do allow for their replacement. Yet, as with every strike, these 780 men and women are standing up for all workers by refusing to bend until their voice is heard. Heightened visibility for labor organizations and other progressive groups gives workers hope that they can negotiate a contract with less concessions, one that has benefits for both sides, not just management.
“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.”