CHICAGO - While all eyes are on Michigan and its decision to adopt the right to work Thursday, the little known story is the dwindling power of unions in union-run states like Illinois. Last year, Wisconsin turned the corner into right to work, as did Indiana earlier this year. All the while, state workers' unions in Illinois grow in number and political muscle, and private sector unions are dwindling.
Workforce.com spotlights a private sector union scuffle right here in Illinois that exemplifies how the unions are eroding from within their ranks:
In Illinois, the latest intra-union conflict—and potentially the biggest yet—is in Joliet. Last May, after contract negotiations stalled, nearly 800 IAM-represented employees walked off the job at Caterpillar's hydraulic-parts factory. After a few weeks, more than 100 returned to work, fed up over the lack of progress in the talks and pinched by the union's $150-a-week strike pay, some workers say.
When an agreement was reached in mid-August, the contract provided less than the one before it: The IAM gave in to an hourly pay freeze for veteran employees, an end to pensions, a doubling of health care premiums and a one-time ratification bonus of $3,100 instead of $5,000 under the previously proposed pact. The terms were almost identical to a Cat contract ratified by the UAW a year earlier.
Doug Oberhelman, chairman and chief executive of the Peoria-based heavy-equipment maker, said management compared compensation to factory hands across Illinois and around the world and concluded that to be "market competitive," Caterpillar had to insist on concessions.
Cat has earned a reputation for driving a hard bargain with unions. In February, the company closed a locomotive plant in Ontario after workers refused to accept a 50 percent pay cut. In his speech, Oberhelman emphasized that management sited Caterpillar's two newest U.S. plants in Georgia and Texas, which are right-to-work states.
But rather than blame the boss, some workers are directing their anger toward a union that they say is out of touch with current realities and refuses to acknowledge its limited power.
"They are not effective," says Steven Olson, 54, a former IAM member who crossed the picket line last summer. "With high unemployment and companies willing to relocate, you just don't have the options that you did 30 years ago. The whole world has changed."
Don't tell the union-fed Democrats that rule Illinois. They're enjoying the ride.