Earlier this year, the battleground in Midwestern labor wars involved public sector workers. This summer, the front line has shifted to private-sector manufacturing unions, especially in the cornerstone industries of steel and heavy equipment.
In Joliet, Illinois, most of the 780 union workers at a Caterpillar factory have been on strike for twelve weeks, to protest company demands for a six-year wage freeze for top-tier workers, plus sharply increased worker contributions to health care plans. At the same time, the Wall Street Journal reports that ArcelorMittal, the world's biggest steelmaker, is demanding that wages and benefits be cut for all workers by no less than $28 per hour, or 36 percent. U.S. Steel, the nation's biggest steelmaker, is heading into contract talks with the United Steelworkers Union (USW): U.S. Steel will be focusing on pension and health-care costs, but apparently is demanding fewer union concessions than is ArcelorMittal.
The two steel companies employ 26,000 workers nationwide, but more than half -- 15,000 -- work at two big mills in northern Indiana, the U.S. Steel Gary Works and the ArcelorMittal plant at Burns Harbor. ArcelorMittal is headquartered in Luxembourg and its Burns Harbor plant, originally owned by Bethlehem Steel, is the largest steelmaking complex in the western hemisphere.
The details -- pay scales, profit margins and significance -- differ widely between Peoria-based Caterpillar and the two steel companies. But the background noise is the same. All three companies, like their industries, have gone global. Midwestern workers compete with workers around the world. Unlike their companies, they can't pick up and move to some other country. The USW, like the International Association of Machinists Union in Joliet, says it will strike if necessary, but in the global economy where jobs are more mobile than unions, this strike threat often is an empty one.