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Four Months On, South Milwaukee Coping With Caterpillar Layoffs

Marti Mikkelson

The city of South Milwaukee has taken a punch. Its largest employer Caterpillar has laid off nearly half its workforce in recent months.

The company makes mining equipment, but says demand is down for the plant’s products. It was just two years ago, that Caterpillar bought Bucyrus – the mining company that had planted roots there more than a century before. 

Caterpillar’s buildings dominate South Milwaukee’s mid-section. They occupy about a square mile.

Across the street, sits a bar named Powers on 10th. Owner Joe Braun says, if not for the layoffs, the place would be packed this evening.

“A lot of those employees were people who like to come here at night after second shift or there’s a group of guys who would come after first shift. My group of guys who would stop here from 3:00 to 6:00 at night went from 10 or 12 people down to about four people, so yeah, it affects a lot,” Braun says.

Braun says business dropped so profoundly this past summer that by August he had laid-off several employees. He says he can’t afford to hire anyone right now, so he tends bar.

Braun bristles when I ask if he might have to close entirely, if business continues plummeting. He says for now, he caters to enough remaining Caterpillar workers to keep the bar afloat.

Credit Marti Mikkelson
Ma and pa businesses dot the landscape of downtown South Milwaukee.

Another nearby establishment that’s relied on company customers is Barbiere’s Italian Inn.

“Generally, I’d say 20 percent of our sales for a week are from the lunch hour that we get from Caterpillar. That’s a good chunk of change."

That’s General Manager Matt Willers. He says he hasn’t noticed a huge drop in business, possibly because many of the restaurant’s customers are white collar workers.

Still, Willers says he and the owner plan to review the books next week and compare sales this year to last. If the numbers are down, Barbiere’s may adjust.

“We’ll have to either do more advertising or we might have to lay some of our folks off and we don’t want to do that,” Willers says.

One person who used to enjoy eating at Barbiere’s and other local restaurants is Francisco Mandujano. Caterpillar laid him off in June.

The 44-year-old had worked there three years as a welding supervisor. Mandujano says he has not yet landed another job, even though he’s spent months submitting applications.

“Mainly construction work, I am a union ironworker also but right now construction is kind of slow too, so I’m looking for manufacturing work, something that’s going to pay a good wage,” Mandujano says.

Mandujano says he earned $32.00 an hour at Caterpillar and is now applying for jobs paying half as much. He calls it a tough pill to swallow, especially when prospective employers tell him, he’s overqualified. So what has he been doing between job applications?

“A lot of yard work, retiling the kitchen, I put a sun tube in the roof which is like a window in the roof down through the kitchen, I have vents to put in, I have furnace work to do,” Mandujano says.

Mandujano says he and his wife miss their disposable income. He says he yearns for their nights on the town; they used to go out to eat at least once a week.

“I miss it, it’s mainly for my wife too, she works and right now she’s holding up the family, we have a house payment, we have other things that are more important than going out but it is important also to have that kind of aspect because you work, you deserve something,” Mandujano says.

Mandujano believes he and his wife can get by for a little while longer on just her income. But he says if he’s still not gainfully employed by the holidays, he’ll consider waiting tables.

Kevin Jaskie isn’t holding out much hope that Caterpillar will call back laid off workers. Jaskie is president of the local United Steelworkers union in South Milwaukee. He says he meets with company representatives regularly.

“They’re telling us indefinitely, I’ve been in this business for 18 years and we do go through some cycles. It seems like this cycle is rougher than the last,” Jaskie says.

Jaskie says he encourages laid off union members to grab onto employment when it comes their way.

Marti was a reporter with WUWM from 1999 to 2021.