It's been a long, hot summer for many working Americans, but perhaps none more so than the nearly 800 unionized employees at Caterpillar in Joliet, Ill., who have been walking the picket line in near-triple-digit heat on some days for nearly three months.
Despite the oppressive temps, picketing workers remain steadfast in their demand that Caterpillar Inc., the maker of large construction and mining equipment, share in some of the massive wealth it's accumulated by providing workers better wages and benefits -- and not freeze or cut them.
Earlier this year, the workers, members of the International Association of Machinists, rejected an offer by Caterpillar that would freeze wages for most workers during the next six years, and require employees to pay a substantially larger portion of health-care costs and see reduced pension benefits.
In rejecting the offer, the workers, who have already made significant concessions, are saying that they are drawing a line in the sand, Robert Bruno, a labor expert at the University of Illinois, told NPR. Strikes have been few in the years following 2008's financial crisis, leaving Bruno to describe the Caterpillar strike as "a throwback."
"Clearly, labor has its back up against the wall in the private sector as well as the public sector," he said, referencing recent fights that unionized public workers have undertaken in other Midwest states, such as Wisconsin and Ohio.
Joe Ahern, who's on the negotiating committee representing Joliet Local 851, told NPR that Caterpillar isn't really interested in negotiating with workers. "It was always, 'This is our last, best and final,' " said Ahern, in assessing the company's stance. "And it was said that way."
But company officials view the contract negotiations very differently, arguing that they need to keep wages, and health-care and retiree expenses in check to ensure future competitiveness, despite earning nearly $5 billion in profit last year and expecting even higher profits this year.
Further, while rank-and-file workers are being asked to sacrifice, Caterpillar has significantly raised executive compensation in light of the company's financial success, The New York Times reports.
Caterpillar argues that many of its workers, the most senior of whom earn about $26 an hour or about $55,000 a year, earn above-market rates, according to the Times.
In taking their stand, the striking workers are seeking to preserve wages that have made them a solid part of the middle class. Newly hired workers take home far less pay than their more seasoned counterparts, earning about $12 to $19 an hour.
But plant manager Carlos Revilla defended the company's push for a pay freeze, saying that the top-tier workers were paid 34 percent above market level.
"A competitive and fair wage package is a must," he told the newspaper in a statement. "Paying wages well above market levels makes Joliet uncompetitive."
During the strike, the company is relying on replacement workers, managers and the few union members who have crossed the picket lines. And workers, most of whom earn just $150 a week in strike pay, have little choice but to continue with their struggle.
For veteran workers such as Bruce Boaz, who's worked at the plant for 39 years, taking a stand will help preserve pay and benefits for a younger generation of machinists.
"It's all about them," Boaz, 57, told the Chicago Sun-Times. "They've got to have a way to better themselves. We can't give up all we've fought for all of these years."
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