Thousands of John Deere workers walked off the job early Thursday after members of the United Auto Workers union rejected the tractor-maker’s contract offer, launching the latest in a series of walkouts by an emboldened labor movement.
The company’s offer included raises of 5 to 6 percent, but union officials said the proposed contract didn’t meet workers’ retirement and wage goals. With companies nationwide struggling to fill jobs and grappling with supply chain tie-ups, union officials say they are seizing the moment to regain benefits they lost in the late 1990s, when an era of assembly-line layoffs and outsourcing diminished unions’ leverage.
“The cards are in our favor right now … it’s never been lined up this well for us,” said Chris Laurson, a longtime worker at the John Deere plant in Ottumwa, Iowa.
Laurson pointed to the company’s record profits, as well as the huge pay raise awarded chief executive John May. “The labor shortage is in our favor too,” he said. “Deere can’t hire enough people with the package they’re offering right now.”
A John Deere spokesman said the company is committed to reaching a favorable outcome, one that would “put every employee in a better economic position and continue to make them the highest paid employees in the agriculture and construction industries.”
The strike includes more than 10,000 workers at 14 Deere plants, including seven in Iowa, four in Illinois and one each in Kansas, Colorado and Georgia. The company has activated a continuity plan that will bring nonunion employees in to keep operations running. “Our immediate concern is meeting the needs of our customers, who work in time-sensitive and critical industries such as agriculture and construction,” the John Deere spokesman said.
The strikes are hitting a wide range of industries, encompassing skilled assembly-line workers, nurses, pharmacists and Hollywood stagehands. Thousands have gone on strike at food production plants run Kellogg’s, Nabisco and Frito-Lay over work hours, pay and benefits. On Monday more than 24,000 Kaiser Permanente workers authorized a strike over a new two-tiered pay and benefits system opposed by the union. And Hollywood production workers announced plans to strike Monday in pursuit of improved pay and working conditions.
All of them are asking for a larger share of pandemic-era profits, as many of these companies have seen their fortunes surge over the past year. John Deere, for example, saw its earnings reach a record $1.79 billion during the second quarter of 2021, nearly doubling last year’s profits.
John Deere contends that its assembly-line workers already have some of the best wages and benefits in their respective industries. A typical employee makes about $60,000 per year, according to wage figures published by the company. The now-rejected contract offer would have increased it to nearly $72,000.
Laurson, the Iowa union official, said the strike is really about winning back benefits that workers lost long ago. The company currently operates under a two-tiered system with smaller pensions than workers enjoyed in the ’90s, he said.
“Fast-forward 19 years, after many concessionary contracts, here we are with a membership that’s better-informed,” Laurson said in an interview Thursday.
Toby Munley, an electrician at the Ottumwa plant, is in his 18th year with the company and worries whether he will be taken care in retirement.
He and his colleagues have been comparing their benefits to those of previous generations and believe they are coming up short. He notes that his father-in-law received health care benefits in retirement that he won’t, as did his grandmother, who was married to a John Deere worker
“We need a light at the end of the tunnel,” he said.
The autoworkers union is receiving some help from the Teamsters union of truck drivers, who Laurson said are helping hold the company’s picket line. Some other trucks working for a nonunionized contractor are crossing the picket line to deal with some concrete work, he said.
“A semi just tried to turn into the entrance to load up some bailers, and everybody shouted ‘NOOOOO!’,” Laurson said, taking a reporter’s call from the Iowa picket line. “He looked at us like ‘what do I do?’ and then kept going.”
Story cited here.