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Caterpillar strike in Joliet turning into test case for U.S. labor relations

(MCT) — The machinists' strike at Caterpillar Inc.'s Joliet plant, now in its 13th week, is drawing national attention as a test case for U.S. labor relations.

The strike recently brought editorial comment from the New York Times entitled "Caterpillar Capitalism," focusing on a company that, despite making $4.9 billion in profits last year, is seeking concessions from 780 union workers at the Joliet plant.

Since the start of the strike on May 1, Caterpillar has kept the Joliet facility operating, moving Caterpillar employees -- most from Peoria -- onto the factory floor.

"We continue to bring on additional temporary replacement workers and will do so until the strike ends or all of our Caterpillar management employees have been released from their contingency work assignments in Joliet," said Caterpillar spokesman Rusty Dunn.

"By the end of the month, we expect to have about 50 percent of our management employees released from their contingency assignments as more temporary workers are brought on."

In April, the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers voted 504-116 to reject a six-year pact that Caterpillar offered. The union charged that the deal lacked raises, increased health care costs for employees and undercut union seniority rules.

Machinists later rejected a second offer that included a $1,000 signing bonus.

Sean Gallaway, a material specialist who's worked at the Joliet plant for 16 years, said Caterpillar's call for competitive wages "only pertains to union workers," citing recent salary increases for the company's non-union personnel and executive compensation.

"Workers are angry because the company is reporting record profits and this is the way we're being treated," he said.

Neither side looks for a quick conclusion to the impasse.

"Caterpillar is sticking to their last, best and final offer. They've learned to do a minimal amount of negotiating, just enough to avoid an unfair labor charge," said Tim O'Brien, president of Machinists Local Lodge 851.

Dunn said that the company couldn't speculate on the likelihood of a settlement.

"We believe we've exhausted the negotiation process and the company's focus is on continuing to operate the Joliet plant in a safe, efficient and productive manner, which is what we are doing," he said.

O'Brien questions the plant's productivity since replacement workers have taken over.

"We know that Caterpillar was having trouble finding experienced people before the strike. They don't have the skill level in the plant right now. Very skilled workers is what we have in this union. It takes years of experience to run quality parts and do the tooling necessary for precision work," O'Brien said.

The Joliet facility employs a total of 2,000 workers, producing hydraulic components for a number of different Caterpillar machines.

Dunn said production at the Joliet plant has been unaffected by the strike.

"Some of our contingent work force is made up of management employees who are engineers. In fact, some of our contingent workers, including the engineers, have identified a number of inefficiencies in certain aspects of the production operations and have made process improvements over the last couple of months. We would expect to maintain these gains and efficiencies after the strike," he said.

O'Brien recalled starting work at the plant in 1974. "I remember the good times. When I first hired in, the company was more of a family. Now you're just a number. It's sad."

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