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At a Caterpillar plant outside Chicago, about 800 workers are about to enter their third month on strike. The plant, in Joliet, Illinois, makes hydraulic systems for Caterpillar's heavy construction and mining equipment. Such long work stoppages at big factories are rare these days. NPR's David Schaper reports on why this one seems to have no end in sight.

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DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: Whenever any car or truck turns off of busy Channahon Road onto the long drive into Caterpillar's Joliet hydraulics plant, the dozen or so union workers on the picket line scream...

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Scab. Scab.

SCHAPER: Even a car clearly marked as delivering sandwiches gets the same treatment as the few workers and managers who have crossed this picket line to try to keep the plant running.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Scab.

SCHAPER: These members of the machinists' union rejected Caterpillar's offer of a six-year contract that would freeze wages for most workers, while sharply increasing health care costs and cutting pension benefits.

JOE AHERN: This one here really kind of was a sucker punch to me.

SCHAPER: Joe Ahern is on the negotiating committee for the Joliet local of the International Association of Machinists, and he says the company never really negotiated.

AHERN: It was very rare you got to the situation where I want A, you want B, let's meet in the middle or let's try to find something - some common ground. It was always this is our last, best and final, and it was sad that way.

SCHAPER: What Ahern says is especially insulting is that Caterpillar earned record profits last year and is on pace to do so again.

AHERN: This company is a global leader, and I don't understand why they wouldn't want to see their employees paid that way, you know, as a leader, why they have to be below the bar on their wages and benefits.

SCHAPER: A spokesman for Caterpillar refused to comment on the strike on air but says in an email that the company has offered what it believes is a fair, reasonable and comprehensive proposal, and that the company has now exhausted the negotiation process. Caterpillar is now trying to hire temporary replacement workers. Robert Bruno teaches labor and employment relations at the University of Illinois and says this strike is an anomaly.

ROBERT BRUNO: We don't see a lot of strikes. We don't see a lot of strikes by large bargaining units, and we don't see a lot of strikes by large bargaining units that go on for more than 24 hours, a couple of shifts, a week. This is a throwback.

SCHAPER: According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, during the 1970s and early '80s, there were hundreds of strikes of more than 1,000 workers each year in the U.S. In 2009, at the height of the recession, there were only five. Last year, there were 19, but Bruno says unions have largely lost their punch.

BRUNO: Clearly, labor has its back up against the wall in the private sector as well as the public sector, and the fights in the public sector, particularly those in the Midwest, I think have had an impact on the state of mind of lots of union workers.

SCHAPER: Caterpillar has a history of hardball tactics against its unions. The company wore down its largest union, the UAW, during a long and bitter strike in the 1990s, eventually forcing it to take deep concessions. And earlier this year, Caterpillar closed a plant in London, Ontario, when the union there balked at pay cuts. But Bruno says this appears to be one of those rare fights in which union workers who have already made significant concessions don't see more to lose by drawing a line in the sand.

But these workers here in Joliet are hurting, most earning only $150 a week in strike pay. No new negotiations are scheduled. The union says it's ready to negotiate at any time and insists that this strike is part of a larger struggle for the right of workers to earn wages that will keep them in the middle class. David Schaper, NPR News, Chicago.

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