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updated: 4/4/2013 8:26 AM

Wis. union officials question Caterpillar layoffs

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Associated Press

MILWAUKEE -- Wisconsin union officials questioned Caterpillar Inc.'s plans to temporarily lay off up to 300 workers in the Milwaukee area after the company's CEO called for more visas for foreign engineers and a path to legal status for workers who entered the country illegally .

Doug Oberhelman, chairman and CEO of the Illinois-based heavy-equipment manufacturer, made his appeal Monday at a kickoff event for the Illinois Business Immigration Coalition in Chicago.

"Today, we (employers) have gaps in our workforce," he said. "We have trouble filling highly skilled positions like engineers and scientists. We also have trouble filling many lower-skilled positions."

Union officials, however, questioned that claim because the company announced last week that it would lay off up to 40 percent of its blue-collar workers at plants in South Milwaukee and Milwaukee because equipment sales have slowed. Tony Montana, spokesman for the United Steelworkers of America, also noted that the layoffs were announced shortly before the company began negotiations with the union.

"I think it makes sense to be very skeptical of what the company says and what it does," Montana told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel for a story Wednesday .

Caterpillar spokesman Rusty Dunn said the need to attract and keep highly-trained workers from other countries is a separate issue from layoffs of blue-collar workers in Wisconsin.

"There will be ups and downs in the business, and there will be actions we have to take to meet the needs of the business," Dunn said.

Caterpillar, the world's largest maker of construction and mining equipment, bought South Milwaukee-based Bucyrus International in 2010 for $7.6 billion. It said previously that the length of the layoffs depended on the company's business outlook.

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Information from: Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, http://www.jsonline.com

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