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VALPARAISO — Hundreds of workers and U.S. Rep. Pete Visclosky, D-Gary, rallied Friday at the Regal Beloit plant in Valparaiso for more affordable health insurance and higher wages as a strike entered its third week.

International Association of Machinists Local 2018 Business Representative and lead negotiator David Gault said workers who make bearings for helicopters, including for the U.S. military, were fed up with wages as low as $15 an hour and health insurance out-of-pocket maximums of up to $20,000 for a family. They voted 99-5 to strike.

Gault said the company rejected the union's proposal for 75-cent per hour raises and an out-of-pocket maximum of $15,000 for health care coverage, saying it had made its final offer.

"It's ridiculous," he said. "And your co-pays don't go toward your deductible. They really have a high bar. If something happens to someone's family, there's no way you can afford it. You're going to go bankrupt."

Workers also object to a Regal Beloit proposal that it have control over when employees can take breaks.

"For the past two contracts, this group accepted low wage increases and bonuses instead of raises," he said. "The company said it wasn't making money like it should and 'if you sign this contract when things get better we'll take care of you.' Well, now things are better, and they reneged on their promise."

Robert Cherry, Regal Beloit vice president for business development and investor relations, said the company has offered pay increases and was looking to reach an agreement through the collective bargaining process. Temporary workers are now staffing the plant, whose bearings go into Apache helicopters and planes, including Air Force One.

Polly Miller, who's worked at the Regal Beloit plant in Valparaiso for 30 years, said the company increasingly struggles to retain employees.

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"There won't be a company years down the road if they don't keep skilled, trained people," he said. "Our manufacturing process has gone all high-tech but they're not paying us any more. People are living paycheck to paycheck, trying to make ends meet."

Worker Steve Morgan said the company hadn't given a decent wage to keep up with the cost of living in 25 years.

"We just want to live," he said. "We just want to be able to pay our bills, not be evicted, not have the electric cut off. With the health insurance, they're lowering our wages. We just want enough to live."

Visclosky said real wages have increased by just 18 cents per hour over the last 40 years.

"In Northwest Indiana, if you're a woman, you make about 67 cents to the dollar for the same job," he said. "That's why you have unions. That's why you have organized labor joining together to collectively bargain, to make sure that the dignity of your work is recognized, to make sure the wage recognizes your skill and dexterity and hard work, to make sure you and your loved ones have health care for your whole lives."

Visclosky, who's chair of the defense appropriations committee, also wrote a letter to the company asking it to return to the bargaining table and resolve the issue.

"You have to have two people to bargain," he said. "You can't have a deal if you get everything you want."

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Business Reporter

Joseph S. Pete is a Lisagor Award-winning business reporter who covers steel, industry, unions, the ports, retail, banking and more. The Indiana University grad has been with The Times since 2013 and blogs about craft beer, culture and the military.