In less than a week, contract negotiations will begin at Caterpillar in South Milwaukee. The talks will be the first since the company took over former Bucyrus International in 2010.
Caterpillar is a major manufacturer of mining equipment.
About 800 members of the United Steel Workers make two different mining shovels at Caterpillar’s South Milwaukee plant.
Local 1343 spokesman Ross Winklbauer will be a member of its bargaining team. He says he’s hoping for “good faith” negotiations, because union workers have enabled Caterpillar to succeed.
“This is a multibillion dollar company that makes record profits, has been making record profits. We are hoping that when the company comes in, it’s with a fair contract,” Winklbauer says.
While Winklbauer says he has no reason to believe talks won’t go well, he did recently send a letter to Milwaukee Area Technical College. He asked it to stop training potential replacement workers.
Caterpillar has said that asking the school to prepare future workers is standard procedure.
Marquette University Management Professor Cheryl Maranto questions the timing.
“I think proactively training field workers in advance of negotiations is a particularly aggressive signal. The more difficult it is to replace key workers, the more bargaining power they would have in negotiations,” Maranto says.
Maranto says another signal of the company’s strategy might be developments at its plant in Joliet, Illinois. Workers there went on strike for several months, then last August, approved a six-year contract – with concessions. They include a freeze on wages and higher health insurance costs.
“The company’s past history is usually a pretty good indication of what their playbook is going to be,” Maranto says.
If what Maranto says is true, the company is not offering any indications. Caterpillar Spokesman Rusty Dunn says its goal is to let the process take its course.
“As always, we will negotiate in good faith, and strive to reach an agreement that is fair to our employees and allows the company to make the business decisions necessary to compete on a global scale in a highly competitive market,” Dunn says.
Formal negotiations are set to begin April 2. The two sides will exchange written proposals and answer questions. The existing contract between the company and its union workers ends on April 30.