(MCT) — Gov. Pat Quinn's scheduled visit to the picket line outside the Caterpillar plant in Joliet on Friday raises the prominence of a labor dispute in its fourth month.
Labor experts are keeping a close watch on the dispute between Caterpillar and its machinists in Joliet because it has the potential to define the future of contract negotiations as the continues to struggle to create jobs. Talks have been deadlocked since June 27.
On Thursday, Quinn said he wants to talk to people on the picket line and let them know that he wants to help.
"Anybody who has been on strike, any family who's gone through that, knows it's kind of a tough time," Quinn said. "You've got to help the families out, members of the families."
Robert Bruno, a professor of labor and employment relations at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said the governor's visit could be significant if he acts as a mediator and gets the two sides to back to the table. Simply showing up won't get Quinn the political clout he needs to assert himself as a leader, Bruno said.
Bruno said the democratic governor needs the support of the state's labor movement if he plans on running for a second term, "and they are not happy now."
Since taking office, Quinn has asked public workers for concessions to keep Illinois afloat. He is now pushing for a comprehensive solution to fix the state's pension system, which has a deficit that the administration projects could hit nearly $93 billion by next summer if changes are not made. However, a wide-ranging reform could alienate labor unions that provide campaign contributions and volunteers.
On the business front, executives have accused Quinn's administration of being against their businesses. Their voices grew louder after an unpopular tax increase. Among them is Caterpillar Chief Executive Douglas Oberhelman, who has also pushed for reform of workers' compensation and written to Quinn saying that state legislators were making it harder for Caterpillar to remain in the state. With his letter to Quinn, Oberhelman attached letters from three other governors trying to woo company operations to their respective states.
In June, Caterpillar launched a study to explore options for updating its Peoria headquarters. The announcement was interpreted as a sign that the company was open to financial offers to move from Peoria.
From the early days of the strike, strikers have described their fight as not all that different from the Occupy Wall Street protesters. The workers feel betrayed because the company, known for its bright yellow heavy machinery, has reneged on so many of its promises over the years.
Labor experts have said that the strike is unusual because the company is making record profits. These kinds of disputes are more likely to be seen when companies are in trouble and need concessions to survive.
On July 25, Caterpillar reported a second-quarter profit of $1.7 billion, or $2.54 per share, up 67 percent from the year-earlier period's $1.02 billion, or $1.52 per share. Revenue was $17.4 billion.
The strike began on May 1, when about 780 union members of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers walked out of their jobs after rejecting a proposed six-year contract that would double health care premiums and eliminate pensions and seniority rights.
The proposed contract would also freeze wages for workers hired before May 2005. Caterpillar, which has described its proposal as fair, has said workers hired since could receive raises if their wages fall below those of other manufacturing workers in northern Illinois. To make that assessment, the company said it would use market wage data compiled by industry groups.
Workers are paid from $11.50 to $28 per hour. About 250 to 300 of the union members are on the lower pay scale.
The union is pressing for cost-of-living increases, lower health care premiums and for the company to honor seniority rights.
Strikers receive a $150 weekly stipend from the union, and some have acknowledged they are struggling financially. So far, more than 70 union members have crossed the picket line, according to strikers. Remaining strikers have vowed to press on.