An editorial in Sunday's Peoria Journal Star raises questions about what's been lost and what's been gained in the contract Caterpillar Inc. approved Friday by striking who had been walking the picket line since May 1.
Peoria is the location of Caterpillar's world headquarters, and has born witness to the company's good times and bad, particularly the recessionary early 1980s, when the company laid off thousands of employees. Here's what they had to say about the settlement.
Machinests at Caterpillar's plant in Joliet have voted to accept a new contract, reportedly by a narrow margin, ending a 3 1/2-month strike that received national attention. One is not quite prepared to shout, "Hallelujah, labor peace is upon us!" but it beats the alternative.
Several of the factory workers interviewed by the Chicago Tribune following the ratification vote were not exactly enthusiastic about the six-year contract, which freezes wages and pensions - replacing the latter with a 401(k) - doubles out-of-pocket health care premiums and curtails seniority rights for veteran workers. Second-tier workers hired in 2005 or thereafter will make 3 percent more six years from now. The pay range at the Joliet plant is $11.50 to $28 an hour. All of the more than 700 workers at the Joliet plant are in line for a $3,100 ratification bonus, up from the $1,000 the company had originally offered.
All in all, the new contract is likely more satisfactory to Peoria-based Caterpillar than to the Machinists union. Let's face it, employers are in the driver's seat these days, which is not unusual following a recession that created less demand for labor but is especially true when global companies have the option of moving operations and making product elsewhere. Companies have put themselves in a position that gives them far greater leverage than organized labor has.
The walkout had gotten national media notice, in large part because of the difficulty in reconciling a company as profitable as Caterpillar taking such a hard line in seeking contract concessions from workers. A news story and opinion piece in the New York Times stopped just short of calling the company an enemy of the middle class, referring to "Caterpillar capitalism" and accusing the trend-setting manufacturer of "trying to pioneer new territory" in U.S. labor relations. Not surprisingly, Caterpillar officials disputed all of that.
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