More than 10,000 production and warehouse workers at 14 John Deere plants in Iowa, Illinois, Kansas, Colorado and Georgia walked off the job at midnight, in the latest in a wave of industrial unrest in the US.
The workers, represented by nine locals with the United Auto Workers (UAW), voted 99% in favor of a strike authorization in September after receiving the initial six-year contract proposal from John Deere.
It is the biggest private sector strike in the US for two years, since the UAW led an action against General Motors. It also comes amid threats of other strikes in the US and widespread labor problems in an economy still recovering form the battering inflicted by the coronavirus pandemic.
On 10 October, workers voted overwhelmingly by 90% to reject the tentative contract agreement offered by John Deere, with a strike deadline set for 11.59pm CT on Wednesday.
David Schmelzer, a quality control inspector at John Deere in Milan, Illinois for 24 years and former chairman of UAW Local 79, said that in 1997 workers took several concessions from John Deere in contract negotiations at the time, which included creating a two-tier system of employees, with workers hired after 1997 receiving fewer benefits.
“We sacrificed, and we want that back now,” said Schmelzer. “Workers in this country need to understand that we have a considerable amount of power in this country, if we choose to utilize it, and there’s no reason why we should stand back and let these companies just completely exploit our labor for billions of dollars and fight tooth and nail not to give us anything.”
He said John Deere spent months sending out texts, mailers, and using supervisors to push workers in support of current benefits for employees leading up to the new union contract negotiations, and the company has currently prepared salaried employees to come in to replace workers on strike.
During the pandemic, Schmelzer said workers have been forced to work overtime consistently, with 10- to 12-hour days through the week and Saturdays.
Through that time, John Deere has reported record profits in 2021, with a $4.7bn profit in the first three quarters of this year, compared to their previous record profit year of $3.5bn in 2013. The company spent over $1.7bn on stock buybacks in the first nine months and paid out $761m in dividends to shareholders.
“A lot of what’s been going on in the country over the last couple of years has definitely made people more aware of the disparity between corporate and income inequality. Just massive amounts of corporate greed,” added Schmelzer. “The majority of people want a bigger share of the success of this company, the success that we’ve been a major part of.”
Prior to the pandemic, John Deere laid off dozens of workers across several plants and reorganized their workforce, demoting several salaried workers to lower-level positions with less pay, citing Trump’s tariff wars with China and its impact on demand.
“This goes beyond numbers. It’s just as much about how people are treated,” said a John Deere employee in Illinois who requested to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation. “Respect from management no longer exists. You can feel the tension in the air. Everybody has been on edge for quite some time. Nearly every day, I would lift my weld hood up to hear employees and managers screaming at each other. They have put highly paid managers on certain operators to watch them and just bird dog them all day.”
During the last union contract negotiations in 2015, John Deere workers approved the contract by fewer than 200 votes after rounds of layoffs where hundreds of jobs were cut. The last time John Deere workers went on strike was in 1986, which lasted 163 days and included a lockout by the company at other plants in retaliation. The current strike is the largest in the private sector since thousands of General Motors workers walked off the job in September 2019.
“It goes way deeper than just not liking a contract,” said another John Deere employee in Illinois. “It’s the summation of years of negative wage movement and probably would’ve happened last contract had the layoff situation not happened.”
The worker cited proposed cuts to post-retirement healthcare, inadequate wage increases and inadequate pension benefits that don’t nearly match what pre-1997 John Deere employees receive as reasons why workers overwhelmingly voted against the latest proposed contract. For new hires, the retirement pension plans would be replaced by a 401k.
A spokesperson for John Deere said in a statement on the contract rejection by workers: “John Deere remains fully committed to continuing the collective bargaining process in an effort to better understand our employees’ viewpoints. In the meantime, our operations will continue as normal.”