The largest strike in the U.S. since 2019 began early Thursday morning as over 10,000 United Auto Workers (UAW) union members walked off the job at manufacturing company John Deere.
Warehouse workers from 14 John Deere locations in Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Colorado and Georgia began striking at midnight Thursday. Last month, workers voted 99 percent in favor of a strike; and on Sunday, workers rejected a contract proposal from John Deere, which saw its profits soar during the pandemic.
Employees are frustrated about a host of issues and have rejected several contract offers from John Deere already. They report low wages and long hours, with some workers saying that they’ve been forced to work 10 to 12 hour days Monday through Saturday. The company had laid off and demoted workers before the pandemic and were seemingly unprepared to handle the consumer demand that would surge during the pandemic.
“These are skilled, tedious jobs that UAW members take pride in every day,” said Mitchell Smith, director of UAW Region 8, which covers 103 locals in Southern and Southwestern states. “Strikes are never easy on workers or their families but John Deere workers believe they deserve a better share of the pie, a safer workplace, and adequate benefits.”
Workers are paid a minimum of $19.14 an hour, while the company has reported record profits of $4.7 billion in the first three quarters of 2021 and has paid out hundreds of millions in dividends to its 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,” David Schmelzer, a quality control inspector in Illinois and former chairman of UAW Local 79, told The Guardian. “The majority of people want a bigger share of the success of this company, the success that we’ve been a major part of.”
UAW 281 members are still outside the John Deere distribution center in Milan picketing. Have been here since around 2 a.m. Plenty of honks in support from cars passing by. Someone even came out and brought donuts for them. pic.twitter.com/qfiOhJ8e25
— Local 4 WHBF (@WHBF) October 14, 2021
John Deere strikers in Ottumwa, UAW Local 74, successfully convince a freight driver not to cross the picket line pic.twitter.com/lwUjOZhrVZ
— Jonah Furman (@JonahFurman) October 14, 2021
John Deere workers are unhappy with a concession made in contract negotiations in the 1990s, when the company created two tiers of employees so that workers hired after 1997 would receive worse benefits. Only workers hired before 1997 get full pension and health care benefits when they retire; newer hires only get a third of the previous pension and no health care in retirement.
Now, the company is trying to create a third tier that eliminates pension completely, which has outraged workers.
“There is much more anger. We are tired. We are tired of making pennies. Tired of spending more time in the building than with our family. We have given them so much of our life,” one worker told Labor Notes reporter Jonah Furman. “We have some in their 70s still working for the healthcare. We don’t want a two tier. They are trying to create a three tier. We will not sell out our younger brothers and sisters.”
John Deere has said in a statement that they are “committed” to reaching an agreement with union members. “We will keep working day and night to understand our employees’ priorities and resolve this strike, while also keeping our operations running for the benefit of all those we serve,” said John Deere vice president of labor relations Brad Morris. The company has prepared salaried workers to cross the picket line.
The strike comes as a wave of strikes appears to be sweeping the country. Between John Deere, Kellogg’s, Kaiser Permanente and film and television workers, over 100,000 workers are striking or have threatened strikes in recent weeks. August also saw a record number of resignations, with 4.3 million workers quitting their jobs, many of them retail or hospitality workers. With job creation slowing, workers are flexing their power as the labor movement appears to be reawakening in the U.S.