Nearly two years after a layoff from Caterpillar Inc., Michael F. Thomas is going back to work.

“The day I walked out of the place — April 4, 1985 — is the day I wrote them off and thought I’d never see them again,” Thomas, 34, of 601 N. Sixth St., Apt. 2 said Tuesday at his home.

“It took him two calls to the union hall to realize he was actually going back to work,” his wife, Laura Thomas, said.

The native Pekinite is one of 542 United Auto Workers being recalled this year from indefinite layoff as stipulated in the July 1986 UAW-Caterpillar contract.

About 1,385 former and current UAW workers were eligible for either recall or an upgrade in job classification through programs called Transition Period Phase I and II.

“Basically, it’s bringing people on the streets back in the shop and getting the proper job classifications,” UAW Local 974 President Tony Green said. “What it is, basically, is getting seniority in line.”

The average maximum layoff period of the recalled workers is 24 to 26 months, Green said.

Of the eligible shop-skilled trade and labor-grade employees and former employees, 947 attended job bid meetings in January. A total of 690 people opted for new job classifications.

No other recalls are planned during the contract period through October 1988, Green said.

Union officials expected the first group of returning workers to enter the plants Monday. A Caterpillar spokesman, however, said the first recalls may not occur until Feb. 23. The bulk of the transition program is expected to be finished by late March or early April.

The 542 returnees also will cause a like amount of lower seniority union members to lose their jobs.

On replacing another union member, Thomas said: “Sure, I took his job. But I should have had a chance at it before.”

Thomas has gone through the necessary meetings and paperwork but has not yet been notified when he will return. “When I punch the clock, I’ll be back to work then,” he said.

Like many workers given indefinite layoffs since 1980, Thomas had begun a new life after Caterpillar.

In May, he would have completed a one-year electronics repair certificate program at Illinois Central College. After school he expected to find a job at about half of his former $13.16 an hour pay scale.

“I know the electronics field was getting bigger and better all the time. My main intention with this was to hopefully open my own repair shop,” Thomas said.

When Thomas returns to work as a day shift mill drill and bore machine specialist, he will go through 10 days of retraining. The pay is $13.44 an hour. “I never thought I’d see that money again,” he said.

Admitting he has mixed feelings about disrupting his studies once he returns to work, Thomas said, “I’ve got one semester left . . . That’s all I was geared for this last year.”

No matter what his schedule, Thomas plans to take classes — “If it takes one course at a time” — until his program is finished.

Thomas was hired at Caterpillar in August 1972 as a block chipper at the Mapleton plant earning about $5.68 an hour. He spent most of his working years as a nozzle shot blaster cleaning newly forged engine blocks.

In June 1982, he became a janitor at the Mossville facility and later walked the picket lines during the seven-month strike of 1982-83. He was laid off for seven weeks shortly thereafter, returned and worked at various jobs within Caterpillar before his last layoff in April 1985.

“I like the way the letter said, ‘your services have been temporarily interrupted,’ ” Thomas remembered of his layoff notification.

Now married for 10 years, the Thomases have a 9-year-old daughter, Brandy. Being out of work meant the family was forced to give up a modest home for a two-bedroom apartment. They have relied on public aid, food stamps and the $100 a month Mrs. Thomas earned until recently as a playground and room supervisor in the Pekin public school system.

Most of Thomas’ schooling expenses have been paid for through the United Private Industry Council. “UPIC’s been great. I haven’t had any out-of-pocket expense for school except when my mileage money went down,” Thomas said.

Though the living hasn’t been easy, especially when the family took in a pregnant niece and a great-nephew for 10 months, Thomas said they have survived by “just going with the flow.

“There’s guys who just hung on the chance they’d be recalled. Not us. It was the only way we got along. We just wrote them off from day one. Like I said, just go with the flow.”

Having gone through strikes, recalls and job changes, Thomas was guarded in his outlook on the future: “It will probably take a good two solid years of working to say I’m going to be here to retire.”

Appeared in The Daily Times, Pekin, IL, February 17, 1987.