One day after ads seeking replacement workers for striking Joliet Caterpillar workers were removed from electronic billboards in the city, Joliet Mayor Tom Giarrante was out walking the picket lines with the rank-and-file.
Giarrante, a former union member from his days as a city firefighter, said he sympathizes with the plight of the 780 Cat workers, who walked off their jobs in May in a dispute over a new contract.
"The fire department went through (a strike) in '77. It's a tough thing," Giarrante said. "The longer you go, the harder it gets."
Giarrante would not confirm he or anyone at city hall pressured billboard sign owner Impact Outdoor to remove the ads. But he did acknowledge that emotions were running high Tuesday when angry Cat union members questioned the appropriateness of the ads running on signs also carrying city of Joliet messages.
The perception, they said, was the city supported Caterpillar, Giarrante said. By 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, the ads had been removed, he said.
The billboards do not belong to the city, nor is the property on which they sit city land, Giarrante said. Joliet has a certain number of public notices appearing on the billboards -- advertising such things as Taste of Jolilet and amber alerts for missing children -- because officials negotiated it as part of the variance needed before the signs could be erected, he said.
Striking workers set up along Route 6 near the Cat plant said they appreciated the public pressure that helped persuade Impact Outdoor to remove the Caterpillar ads, which the union sees as a pressure tactic to force them to accept what they deem to be an unfair contract proposal.
Timothy O'Brien, president of International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers Local 851, said the mayor walking the picket line Wednesday and on one earlier occasion has helped boost striker morale.
Despite the flap over the ads, O'Brien said the threat to hire replacement workers is more a sham designed to scare strikers than a serious threat.
"You can't just have people come in off the street and do those jobs," he said. "You have to have a specific set of skills and training to do that work."
The union maintains that Caterpillar provoked the battle by presenting only two contract proposals, both of which would have frozen the salaries of first-tier workers with longer tenures while upping health insurance costs, O'Brien said. The company also wants to end the employees' pension in favor of a 401(k)-type investment plan, he said.
The bigger concern is a provision that would allow the company to move workers to different jobs and plants without any say from the union or the employees affected, he said. That move would essentially gut any authority the union would have to represent its members in unfair work situations, he said.
A call to Caterpillar headquarters in Peoria for comment was not returned Wednesday afternoon.