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John Deere Strike Continues as Workers Vote on New Contract Proposal

The ten thousand workers who produce John Deere’s agricultural and construction machines at a dozen factories in Iowa and northwest Illinois have been on strike since October 14. On Tuesday November 2, they will vote “Yes” or “No” to a new contract offer from the company.

Daniel Nath

November 2, 2021
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Photo: Getty Images

On October 10, John Deere factory workers, who are organized in the United Autoworkers (UAW) union, overwhelmingly rejected a second contract offer from the company. Since October 14, more than 10,000 workers have been on strike at plants in Illinois and Iowa. Now, Deere has made a third offer that almost doubles the pre-strike proposed wage increases and includes a large ratification bonus. Workers are voting today on whether to accept this contract or not. But it is not clear whether workers will vote for the contract or try to use John Deere’s fear of its unfilled tractor orders and bleeding profits to impose an even bigger victory against the company.

On the weekend of October 23, I traveled to the Quad Cities on the Illinois and Iowa sides of the Mississippi River as a Left Voice correspondent to support picketing workers and report on the strike. While the workers I spoke to seemed most concerned about bread and butter issues like wages and benefits, they also complained of long hours, grueling speedups, and a two-tier system of pay and benefits that divides younger workers from those with the most seniority.

One striker, who voted no on the second contract proposal that was put forward as a tentative agreement with the UAW in early October, told me that when its terms were announced the response of their co-workers was “laughter.” No one in the union except perhaps top international officials, he said, could have expected it to be accepted by members. That pre-strike offer included 12 percent in raises and a few 2 percent bonuses over the next six years, but it would have eliminated pensions for all workers hired in the future. Workers overwhelmingly saw this offer as concessionary and insulting. 

On October 30, the seventeenth day of the walkout, Deere made a new contract offer as a new “tentative agreement” with UAW negotiators. It is much better than the last one, offering in effect twice as much in raises and saving retirement pensions for workers hired in the future. The short highlighted summary released by the UAW to workers about the contract shows that the contract offers 20 percent in raises over the next 6 years, plus a few 3 percent bonuses. Deere already agreed before the strike to resume cost of living allowances for inflation, which the last six-year contract stopped, and not to make workers start paying health insurance premiums. The new contract allows future workers to earn retirement pensions and includes an $8,500 “ratification bonus.”

A striker in his fifties told me that he had been with Deere for five years and that in each of those years he had worked a bit over 3,000 hours. Two thousand hours is a full time job without many vacation days. “I have no work-life balance,” he said. Another striker in her fifties told me she had been a welder for 14 years and she had routinely worked close to 70 hours a week. Twelve hour mandatory days were common, although she said the contract only allowed Deere to require her to work eight hours on Saturdays.

Another welder, who generally worked “only 50 hour weeks” explained that assembly line workers are subject to a program agreed to by Deere and the UAW called Continuous Improvement Payment (CIPP). This is a productivity speed-up system in which every year that a person works producing the same item they are required to do their job 4 percent faster in order to be paid the same amount. Furthermore, teams of ten to fifty workers in a factory are monitored as a unit on their productivity and all members must work together to fulfill and overfulfill productivity targets in order to protect the pay of the whole group or earn a group bonus. Some workers think the CIPP system is okay, but many resent it. One worker, who was particularly outspoken on the picket line said he hated it, claiming that his team makes twice as many tractor frames in a shift as they did when he started years ago without any real increase in their income. This rank and filer viewed CIPP as a scam to get more money out of workers. He and others also argue that the actual work inside Deere factories is often set up in ways that are dysfunctional, unreasonable, or even dangerous. 

After visiting factories with overwhelmingly older workers, I visited another picket location with some younger and recently hired workers. Some of them expressed anger toward the company. They wanted to make contract gains, but generally thought jobs with Deere were much less desirable and well compensated than they were in the past. They also complained that compensation for workers within the company is incredibly uneven. 

This is the result of a two-tier system of wages and benefits that began in 1997, when Deere and the UAW made a deal that locked in pay and beefy pensions to existing workers but slashed both for future workers. According to the Des Moines Register, that deal, “cut starting wages for new hires almost in half.” Labor Notes reports that workers who started after 1997, get one third as much of a pension and no retirement health insurance compared to those that started before. 

Two-tier deals like this are horrible for workers’ bargaining power. They essentially ask workers with long seniority and vested retirement income to ensure a decent deal for themselves while trading lower wages and less security for younger and later hired workers. Obviously, from the company’s point of view this is a great deal: the high compensation for the older generation of workers is only temporary and is being phased out for a new normal. Meanwhile, different members of the workforce and the union have diverging living standards and problems that make them less likely to decide to strike together. And the union itself severely loses credibility and strength by acting against the interests of younger workers when they don’t have a chance to vote against the deal and then locking new hires into the fait accompli that rests on previous decades’ union power but admits defeat for pay and conditions in the present. The situation intensifies the interest of a bureaucratic union leadership in arranging life in the union to avoid activity and expressions of opinion by rank and file workers, since a growing section of the workforce has been placed in a worse situation by difficult to reverse union policy.

When I visited the picket lines at the gates of the Deere Davenport (Iowa) Works, a court injunction was in place for Davenport which ordered strikers not to trespass on company property, banned the gathering of more than four people on a picket line, and banned picketers from doing anything to interfere with vehicles bringing scabs into the plant. When I was there, it was cold, rainy, windy, and dark, and picketers were standing right next to a four lane highway. There was a company security guard watching picketers from the plant entrance back from the road with a portable street light run by a generator. 

John Deere announced it got this injunction in order to keep both strikebreaking employees and strikers “safe.” But its purpose is obviously to weaken picket lines. One of the four picketers present told me that before the injunction there had been a large rally of three hundred strikers coming together to show their numbers and protest scabs entering the plant.

Far from trying to keep anyone safe, the only goal of the company in this situation is to protect its own control of its private property and its ability to run production in spite of the strike against the workforce. Shoving picketers out away from the plants to the roadsides led to Richard Rich’s death.

Visiting several factories, I saw small day to day pickets of twelve strikers or less. They were along roads and/or on public property, not standing across street entrances where salaried company employees were driven in and out to scab.

The UAW has consented to and accepted the legal legitimacy of the anti-picketing Davenport injunction. This is a very bad strategy. The union strongly told workers not to block any roads or disobey any laws and merely suggests the injunction was the wrong decision and did not challenge it except via lawyers in the courtroom.

This is the wrong policy. One worker arrived at the four-person picket on the side of the highway in full body high visibility rain gear that he bought himself. Strikers are not “trespassers!” The workplace exists and runs because of their labor. Striking workers have every right to block entrances and to confront and stop scabs. They should also be just as visible as a well-equipped highway crew, and they should be able to take responsibility for order and safety on their picket line, control traffic, decide who is permitted to be present, and so on.

The worst part of my experience on the picket lines was that active and intentional discussion and debate of what to do in the strike was missing. Most of the time workers passed the time with small talk, camaraderie, jokes, talk about hobbies and so on. They did talk about what was happening in the strike, but with no discussion of planning, demands, or debates.

This is most clearly shown by the fact that picketers did not discuss at all what the union should be demanding over and above the things offered in the previous contract proposal from Deere. Sometimes more articulate workers and on the spot leaders shared opinions about grievances with the contract and with work in their factories. But no one was talking about what percentage raise would be acceptable, what other benefits were necessary to a winning contract, or what workers should do about things like two tier pay and CIPP policy. Suggestively, one worker commented out loud that he would be happy to go back to work with a $30 hourly wage for himself, a $10,000 bonus, and less CIPP pressure, but he was imagining hypothetically what he hoped would happen and looking specifically at his individual conditions. People were not having a conversation about what to negotiate for and fight for collectively as a union workforce.

One of the core reasons for this culture of wait-and-see is obvious — the union as an institution and its leadership do not organize or encourage multiple rank and filers to discuss specific questions, or debate competing needs and strategies. That is a big waste of the opportunity of long hours of mobilizing with co-workers in a strike. A union rep did visit one picket line I was on to shepherd a Democratic city council member from a nearby city who was visiting to show he cared about workers. That union rep told strikers they had been lobbying state politicians in Springfield, Illinois and assured them that Democratic governor J.B. Pritzker was on their side. (Pritzker is a billionaire from the family that owns the Hyatt Hotel company.)

Having no discussion and debate of strike strategy by strikers means that workers are on the line to carry out the labor withdrawal, leg work, and visibility parts of a strike but not to collectively consider options for how to run the strike. With no public arguments by workers in front of their coworkers, bottom-up demands or proposals are less likely to become visible, grow, or contend for a hearing. The process of the strike is left wooden and unidirectional. Remember, the workforce was massively against the deal that the union negotiators came to as a tentative agreement with the company. A strike in which workers only carry out the routine planned by union leaders also makes it impossible for workers themselves to make decisions about picketing tactics.

On the riverfront street of Moline, Illinois, downtown picketers were getting honks and supportive gestures from 80 percent of cars going by. Working people driving by the Harvester picket line heavily supported the strikers. But so far the public support has been used by the UAW only in terms of showing it and keeping up spirits. The union could have asked hundreds of people to picket with workers or organize protests to embarrass the company. Mass numbers of people could come out to shame strikebreaking salaried Deere workers. Workers from other unionized jobs could have carried out solidarity strikes. Finally, in this strike —in an old established unionized industry with higher wages and benefits — a large majority of Deere workers are white. The Quad Cities are very much Black and Latino especially when compared to the Deere workforce. In spite of this, Black drivers were even more likely than white drivers to honk in support of the strike — nearly 100%. It is not acceptable, credible, or conducive to real strength for the unionized Deere workers to ignore issues of other working class people, and specifically Black and Latino workers in the area their industry is located. Greater strike success and better pay and working conditions, even the ability to face entrenched long hours and overwork head on, can only happen with a more aggressive, more rank and file, more politicized, and anti-racist perspective that looks at the issues of the tractor industry workers inside the bigger picture of low-wage conditions and precarious jobs for the working class as a whole in the region and the country. This includes turning picket lines into forums for worker self-education and collective struggle, learning about political realities, and making a choice to actively demand the hiring of Black and Brown workers to change the composition of the workforce and to forthrightly oppose racist police violence.

We will know soon if the John Deere workers decide to end their strike or continue. It would be very difficult to overstate what a strategic place they stand in as a workforce and how economically weighty their machine building is in making farming and construction possible. Our job is to logically and directly think through the strengths and weaknesses of this strike and the others to come around the U.S. If a majority of workers decide to continue striking for more — send support to Iowa to help them fight!

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Daniel Nath

Daniel is a political writer, lives in the Midwest, and is forklift certified. He has covered topics including police crimes, borders, and why unions can't be apolitical

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