CAT employees return to work without contract

Union members at Caterpillar Inc.’s South Milwaukee plant returned to work today and are waiting to hear whether the company will agree to continue negotiations for a new contract.

The members of United Steelworkers 1343 rejected the company’s proposed six-year labor pact Tuesday night.

The vote means more than 800 union members are currently working without a contract. The company’s proposal would have frozen workers’ wages for six years and increased their share of payment for health care benefits. The company also has announced plans to lay off 250 to 300 workers in South Milwaukee.

The union, which has been negotiating with Caterpillar since April 2, declined to reveal the final tally of the vote.

“Our membership has stood behind us. They’ve stood behind us the whole time,” said Ross Winklbauer, United Steelworkers union sub-district director of District 4.

The union now plans to meet with Caterpillar again and try to work out a compromise, he said.

“Our plan is to keep working,” Winklbauer said. “We want to help build this company, keep it No. 1 in the world.”

The company has not yet told Local 1343 whether it is willing to continue negotiating. 

Following the vote, Caterpillar said in a statement: “Our employees rejected what we believed to be a competitive contract offer. We will now assess the situation and determine what, if any, are the appropriate next steps in this process.”

However, Local 1343 does not plan to strike, Winklbauer said. The union has told its members to continue reporting for work.

“We couldn’t understand why (the company) had these (replacement workers) in. We are not planning on taking our people on strike,” he said. “Our goal is to sit across the table and have good negotiations, as it’s always been.”

The last pay raise South Milwaukee workers received was in May 2012. Under the proposal, they would not have received a raise this year and would have undergone a wage freeze for the next six years.

But workers would have received a $2,500 bonus per employee for ratifying the proposal by April 30.

The terms of Caterpillar’s proposal also would have allowed the company to lay off employees in week-long increments for up to 14 weeks per year, with no preference given for seniority.

Some union members were upset about the company’s efforts to prepare for a potential strike by training salaried workers to replace production employees at Milwaukee Area Technical College.

“Some people, before they even saw the contract, felt they were going to vote no,” Winklbauer said.

But the company said training replacement workers is part of its contingency planning process during any negotiation.

“This is a normal part of our business planning,” the company said in a statement. “We are not expecting, and hope there is not, a work stoppage. The mission of our contingency workforce planning efforts is to serve our customers and shareholders by having work plans, standard processes, policies and people ready to deploy in the event of any business interruption. The bottom line is that if we don’t serve our customers, our competitors will.”

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