Striking John Deere Workers Reject Second Contract Offer, Hold the Line

Striking John Deere Workers Reject Second Contract Offer, Hold the Line
Workers striking outside the John Deere Davenport Works facility on Oct. 15, 2021, in Davenport, Iowa. (Photo: Scott Olson, Getty Images)

John Deere workers who have been striking in protest of the company’s contract offers since Oct. 14 will continue to do so after rejecting a second proposal on Tuesday. That means nearly 10,000 workers at plants in Iowa, Illinois, and Kansas will remain on the picket line, telling their employer they’re fed up and want a better deal.

The three-week strike is potentially a historic reversal of the fortunes of the organised labour movement, which has taken serious blows in the last few decades. In the case of John Deere, a landscaping, agriculture, and forestry equipment and machine manufacturer that ranks among the world’s largest companies by revenue, workers want a slice of the record-breaking $US6 ($8) billion in profits that the company is on track to make in 2021. Cornell University’s Labour Action Tracker shows some 25,000 workers across the U.S. went on strike in October, a massive increase from the average of 10,000 over each of the preceding three months, according to the Des Moine Register.

“Thirty-five years ago, workers at Deere lost a lockout and took a deal that froze and reduced wages,” University of Chicago historian Gabriel Winant told Bloomberg Law. “Today they rejected an offer that starts with a 10% raise. It’s the biggest downward shift in the economic balance of power in my lifetime.”

“The nation is watching,” AFL-CIO President Liz Shuler said on Monday, the Register reported. “And we have to win these strikes. Otherwise, people will say, ‘What good is it to stand up like that?’”

“It will lay the foundation for other employers to say, ‘We don’t want to go through that,’” Shuler added. “It’s massively disruptive. It’s about productivity and predictability for most companies.”

The United Auto Workers union has already secured major concessions from the company after a first offer that many unit members saw as intolerable. According to USA Today, while the first contract offer would have extended 5%-6% raises effective immediately, the second offer took that to 10% and increased subsequent annual raises. Deere also offered $US150 (A$202) more a month in pension for a 25-year employee than their first offer, abandoned a plan to eliminate pensions for future hires, and increased lump-sum payments to retiring workers ($US100,000 (A$134,579) for a 25-year employee, up from $US60,000 (A$80,754)). Deere also offered contract signing bonuses of $US8,500 (A$11,440), up from $US3,500 (A$4,710) prior.

Counting the offers of an immediate pay raise, offers of an additional 5% raise in 2023 in 2025, and quarterly cost of living adjustments, the UAW estimated Deere’s second proposal would result in a 30% increase in overall pay to unit members by 2027, USA Today wrote.

Deere’s first offer was overwhelmingly rejected, with 90% of unionized members voting in opposition. The second offer was closer, USA Today reported. Several local unions (UAW Local 450 in Des Moines, UAW Local 74 in Ottumwa, and UAW Local 281 in Davenport) voted to approve it, but overall it fell flat, with Deere workers shooting it down on a 55%-45% basis. There hasn’t been any indication as to when the two parties will resume negotiations.

“By a vote of 45% yes to 55% no, UAW John Deere members voted down the agreement this evening,” the UAW told Bloomberg Law in a statement. “The strike against John Deere and company will continue as we discuss next steps with the company.”

A Deere executive, Marc A. Howze, told the New York Times in a statement that the contract would have extended “an additional $US3.5 ($5) billion in our employees, and by extension, our communities.” He added “With the rejection of the agreement covering our Midwest facilities, we will execute the next phase of our Customer Service Continuation Plan,” referring to the company’s deployment of random non-union, salaried office workers to cover shifts in its factories. That plan hasn’t been going so well, with management reportedly trying to cover up reports of workplace accidents. According to the New Republic, many of those workers are well aware they are not qualified to replace striking Deere employees in highly skilled areas like machining and welding, with one warning Labour Notes reporter Jonah Furman of a “horror show” if the company tries to have them handle “the next build cycle of combines”.

“We have the support of the community, we have the support of workers all around the country,” Chris Laursen, a Deere worker in Ottumwa, Iowa who was until recently the president of his union local and voted for the second contract, told the Times. “If we turned down a 20 per cent increase over a six-year period, substantial gains to our pension plan, I’m afraid we would lose that.”

Douglas Woolam, who has worked at John Deere Seeding Group for 23 years, told USA Today that his father retired from Deere at a higher pay rate than he has now, and also received substantial retirement bonuses and ongoing health coverage. He added most Deere workers make no more than $US23.70 (A$32) an hour, or about $US47,400 (A$63,790) annually.

“I’m not thinking about me,” Woolam told USA Today. “I’m thinking about people behind me. My dad thought about people behind him. My aunt thought about people behind her. And my grandfather thought about people behind him.”

Bloomberg Law noted that many more workers may go on strike in the coming months. Tens of thousands of Kaiser Permanente workers organising for better conditions have already voted to authorise work stoppages. The army of workers working behind the scenes in Hollywood, ranging from sound technicians and set decorators to carpenters and costume artists, may still vote to reject a contract deal between major studios and the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees and go on strike.