Caterpillar says production on pace despite Joliet strike
By Cindy Wojdyla Cain email@example.com June 3, 2012 3:46PM
Updated: July 7, 2012 8:18AM
Caterpillar Inc. officials say they will stand strong and continue to deliver hydraulic parts to customers, even as a strike by 780 union machinists at the company’s Joliet plant enters its second month.
Officials from the Peoria-based company invited Sun-Times Media in for a tour of the 1.3 million-square-foot plant on Friday morning to show it was well-staffed with workers. They said the plant is exceeding pre-strike production levels with a contingent workforce of about 700.
“Joliet is here, it’s running and it’s going to continue to run,” said Tim Flaherty, the general manager for advanced components and systems division.
About 780 machinists went on strike May 1 after their previous seven-year contract expired. They rejected a six-year contract offer from the company on April 29 and they voted 504-116 against a revised contract proposal on Wednesday.
Flaherty said it was important to let the workers know about the contingency workforce so they could make informed decisions going forward.
“We understand they have a right to strike,” Flaherty said. “We appreciate them as people, we appreciate them as workers, and that’s why we want them to know what’s going on (in the plant).”
Plant factory manager Dave Viebrock said he feels for both striking workers and the contingency workforce.
“(The striking workers) are our team, and we’re in a transition now with our new team,” he said. “I don’t know how to say it other than I love both teams.”
But the bottom line is production, he added.
“A lot of people are counting on us to deliver to our customers, and we will do that,” he said.
Flaherty said production is up because many more engineers are working in the plant than normal. When he was asked if his statement that production was up was an insult to the striking workforce, Flaherty said: “It’s not an insult, it’s true. We have this workforce here that has hundreds of engineers in it, so we are taking advantage of that.”
Steve Jones, directing business manager of Channahon-based Local Lodge 851 of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, said the plant may be producing components, but union officials believe the quality has gone down.
“They may be producing at a high level, but based on reports that we have seen and also reports we have gotten from employees at other Caterpillar factories which use our parts, the quality of the product is substandard,” Jones said.
The contingency workforce is made up of supervisors, retirees, new employees who have not worked for Caterpillar before and striking machinists who have crossed the picket line, Flaherty said.
The plant was humming with activity on Friday with workers smiling and waving and manning their stations. Most did not want their names used because of the volatile nature of a strike.
But Ronald Shinogle didn’t mind being named. He is the plant’s valve production manager, and he has 65 patents to his name.
“I think we’re doing a great job here,” he said. “In my view, we’re ahead of schedule on a lot of things and we’re finding great improvements, also.”
The Joliet plant, which is on Route 6 just west of Larkin Avenue and opened in 1951, serves as the company’s global headquarters for hydraulic parts. While there is some overlap among the plants, Joliet is the biggest and most comprehensive of all of the company’s hydraulic facilities, Flaherty said.
Hydraulic components — which include cylinders, struts, valves, tanks and pumps — are the “heart and soul” of all of Caterpillar’s vehicles ranging from the 400-ton 797 mining truck to the much smaller skid steer loaders, Viebrock said. The components allow the vehicles to dig, dump, lift, steer, scoop and brake. Hydraulic components arrive at the plant in a rough cast form. After they are drilled, welded, polished and painted in Joliet, the components are sent to customers around the world as well as to Caterpillar plants in Illinois where they are used in tractors, trucks and excavators.
“Eighty-two percent of the people rejected the company’s last offer in a strong sign of solidarity,” the union’s Jones said.
Union officials said Caterpillar’s offer provided no raises, eliminated the defined benefits pension program, weakened seniority rights and required machinists to pay higher contributions for health care at a time when the company is making record profits.
Union workers have said it’s time for the “little guy” to stand up and that they don’t want to be “slave labor” for Caterpillar.
The company, meanwhile, has said it is trying to keep costs down so it can remain competitive in a global market and is willing to offer workers market rate wages and the type of benefits “many Americans” are getting.
But, Jones noted that Caterpillar recently gave its German workers 4.3 percent salary increases, which took effect May 1.
“While they’re playing hardball here in the states, abroad they’re more than happy to spread their money around even though their corporate headquarters is less than two hours away from the Joliet plant,” Jones said.
The union is asking for cost of living raises based on the consumer price index only for supplemental workers who can work at the plant for up to two years with no benefits, Jones said. They get paid $13 an hour, the same rate they received during the previous contract.
Tier 1 workers hired before May 2, 2005, get paid up to about $28 an hour, Jones said. Tier 2 workers hired after that date get paid $15 to $19 an hour. Tier 2 workers used to be able to work up to Tier 1 after 10 years, but the new contract offer eliminates that option, Jones said.
Rather than talk about the nuances of negotiations or the possible closure of the plant if the strike isn’t settled, Flaherty instead stressed that production in Joliet would continue. And the company will not budge from its most recent contract offer, he added.
“We have our best offer on the table,” Flaherty said. “We’re moving forward now. That’s our entire focus.”